Better Together: Breakthrough Science the Northwestern Way

University is a leader in teaching, practicing, and promoting team science

By Glenn JeffersOctober 10, 2017

When Northwestern’s Sir Fraser Stoddart won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his breakthrough advances in the field, he was justly applauded for his singular vision and lifelong commitment to science. Yet in his public remarks, Stoddart lavished praise others, too, and on a university ecosystem that allowed his discoveries to flourish.

“I share this recognition with my students, postdoctoral fellows, and colleagues,” he said. “Northwestern is a special place, where everyone does science in a collaborative way. It happens seamlessly here. If you don’t have the expertise, you can find it, and people step forward without being asked.”

But elevating interdisciplinary research beyond buzzwords or aspirations takes structural change, not just good intentions.

Few academic institutions understand this better than Northwestern. The University has long provided the infrastructure, facilities, and incentives that enable collaboration to thrive both within and across fields. That’s why it’s not unusual for many Northwestern scholars to come together to pursue research that can be considered team science. One way these advances occur is through more than 50 University Research Institutes and Centers — interdisciplinary knowledge hubs that attract talent from across Northwestern schools to explore subjects as diverse as nanotechnology, astrophysics, biomedicine, global policy, sustainable energy, and many more.

“Our institutes and centers represent an important part of our culture. They enable exciting, high-impact science at the intersections of disciplines while at the same time creating business efficiencies that streamline costs,” says Fruma Yehiely, associate vice president for research in Northwestern’s Office for Research. Yehiely is part of the leadership team responsible for developing and implementing strategic initiatives, including external partnerships and cross-disciplinary research. “Interdisciplinary research is really in the DNA of Northwestern, but these institutes and centers don’t just happen,” she says. “They require a lot of due diligence and the buy-in of our faculty, our research deans, and the senior administration.”

In addition to these hubs, the University has striven to reduce barriers to collaboration, which Yehiely says many peer institutions have not done as successfully. Some of these efforts aim to lower financial impediments through allocation of facilities and administration costs, while others help connect would-be collaborators within the University and across the world. Digital tools are complemented by exceptional physical spaces, such as the LEED-certified, 147,000-square-foot Silverman Hall on the Evanston campus. Housing some 16 research groups and several shared core facilities with ultramodern scientific instrumentation, the building is designed to enhance collaboration and engagement among its 250 faculty, staff, and research assistants in chemistry, biology, and engineering. Currently under construction on Northwestern’s Chicago campus is the state-of-the-art Simpson Querrey Biomedical Research Center. The first of two construction phases, scheduled to be completed in 2019, will result in a 14-story, 600,000-square-foot building with collaborative research and support space for 23 research teams per floor, including a floor dedicated to collaborations between the Feinberg School of Medicine and McCormick School of Engineering. An eventual build-out will add approximately 600,000 square feet and up to 16 additional floors. In addition, Yehiely says, Northwestern’s practice of joint appointments — currently across as many as three schools — is another factor that encourages collaboration. “This is not your typical faculty appointment at most peer institutions,” she notes. 

Keep Connecting

Why is such an approach to research important today? Partly because of the proliferation of disciplines over the last century, and partly because of the increasing complexity within those fields, which encourages and rewards deeper domain specialization. Greater specialization translates into a need for bigger groups of specialists.

“There’s more and more to know in the world, and you can only have so much in your head,” says Benjamin Jones, strategy. “So the share of stuff you know as an individual is declining in any field. This is a never-ending phenomenon of increased specialization, which is ever increasing the demand for collaboration,” he says.

In other words, depth of knowledge remains vital for scientific progress, but so too does finding ways to link expertise across domains and even within them. This can help tackle major social issues that any single field cannot easily or fully address, and it’s one reason that federal funding sources such as the National Institutes of Health have been recognizing the importance of team science in recent years.

“The biggest challenges confronting humanity — energy, water, or food security, to name just a few — don’t fit neatly into conventional academic disciplines,” says Jay Walsh, vice president for research. “The complexity of these and other grand challenges often requires us to bridge disciplines, to bring together various ideas and expertise that enable us to engage boldly with problems whose solutions will improve the world.” Disciplines matter, Walsh says, but so does exploring new ways to combine talents that might not otherwise connect. And those connections can pay off.

“Breakthrough innovations usually occur when somebody crosses domains and borders,” says Leigh Thompson, the J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolutions and Organizations snd director of the Kellogg’s team and group research center.

Science of ‘Team Science’

Bringing talent together is not the same as understanding how to get the most from such collaborations. That’s why Northwestern has also been a pioneering catalyst for exploring the science of team science, a relatively young field focused on understanding how innovative teams organize, communicate, and conduct research. For nearly a decade, several Northwestern scholars — notably Brian Uzzi, management and organizations, and Noshir Contractor, industrial engineering and management sciences — have studied team science. Major initiatives, such as the team science program of the Northwestern Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (NUCATS), offer workshops and seminars on building and organizing teams. In 2010, Northwestern launched the inaugural International Science of Team Science Conference, which has become a major annual event, attracting global thought leaders at locations across the United States. Throughout the year, the Office of Research Development — part of the portfolio of expert services provided by the Office for Research — offers resources, programs, and events aimed at spurring innovative research collaboration between faculty who work in similar areas but come from different disciplines.

The result is a robust academic institution that studies, teaches, practices, and promotes cross-disciplinary research collaboration at every opportunity. “We have a few people who have built up this area over the years,” says Contractor, who is also director of the Science of Networks in Communities Research Group at Northwestern, which advances social network theories, methods, and tools to deliver practical benefits for working groups, online communities, and virtual teams. “The more we built our reputation, the more people we could recruit to come and study. Our efforts established us as one of the signature places for the study of team science.”

Northwestern is home to several academics who view team-building as a springboard for innovation. While researchers and their disciplinary knowledge are critical, it is the team’s assembly and organization that allow information to successfully coalesce. “As problems become more and more complicated, they require more and more disciplines to be brought together to understand the problem,” says Uzzi, the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change and codirector of the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems, a cross-disciplinary hub for pathbreaking research in data science.

As an example, Uzzi cites voice recognition, now used every day thanks to computerized personal assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. Researchers started developing voice recognition in the 1970s and thought they could create workable applications within 10 years. “But as they got into the problem, they began to realize that you needed much more than the science to really understand voice recognition,” says Uzzi. “You need to bring in cognitive psychology, audiology, and a number of other disciplines to know enough about the problem to solve it in a sophisticated and real way.”

The science of team science considers what makes these multidisciplinary teams successful and investigates ways to measure that success. Uzzi’s work has focused on building optimal teams. Observing the teams behind successful Broadway musicals led him to posit a “five-person” dynamic that, through further study, outperformed other groups. The five-person team includes:

  • Two “incumbents” who have been in a field for at least five years and have previously worked and published together. “The incumbents really know each other’s style and can exchange information quickly,” Uzzi says. “They’re willing to take risks with each other’s ideas.” 
  • One new incumbent, from another field and who has not worked with the other two. While that person would have the same amount of experience, “they throw in new and disruptive information that can be mixed with the two incumbents, potentially expanding the horizon.”
  • Two newcomers who are not engaged in any field and are still learning. “They do a lot of the heavy lifting. You need a couple of people who are new and want to make a name for themselves.”

This configuration works because the incumbents bring their expertise and relationships with other researchers. “This system allows you to plug into a large network through the different incumbents,” Uzzi says. “It has a really good division of labor where there is efficiency among the incumbents, and the newcomers are able to efficiently invest their time putting stuff together for the first time.”

So plug in five people who fit these criteria and you have a successful team? It can be a little more complicated, says Thompson. For starters, you need to find researchers who want to work together. “If you go to any cocktail party in academia, everybody will nod their heads and say, ‘Yes, cross-disciplinary research is very important,’” she says. “But the truth is very few people do it, because the risks are high.”

In fact, after studying projects funded by the National Science Foundation, Contractor notes that the more disciplines and universities there are on a project team, the less likely it is that the group will generate anything productive. “But when they do succeed, they do so spectacularly,” he says. “And that’s what makes it worthwhile.”

So how to form a successful team that doesn’t fit Uzzi’s model? “That’s the million-dollar question that costs more than a million,” says Contractor. But he has found a possible solution in online dating, specifically taking some of the analytics and search capabilities used on sites like Match and eHarmony to create a web-based platform that can find potential collaborators.

Enter Northwestern Scholars.

Northwestern Scholars, overseen by Yehiely, is a database of over 4,000 faculty research profiles that enables anyone to search for expertise and potential collaborators at the University. The database allows users to look for faculty based on several criteria, including research area and connected organizations. Users also can see existing collaborations, which can help identify more potential partners.

The Northwestern University Dream Team Recommender is a platform Contractor is developing to leverage Northwestern Scholars data to help researchers and administrators assemble exceptional teams. The benefit is twofold: Researchers can find potential collaborators under whatever parameters are required, and Contractor can use the data to understand how teams were formed and later track their progress. So far he has found that the most successful teams include collaborators who haven’t cited each other in their previous work.

Again, success comes down to melding together different perspectives and combining previously unconnected knowledge, Contractor says. “I might be citing someone in network analytics, and you might be citing someone in oncology. And we might have a better shot at coming up with some innovative ideas.”

It’s that idea of collaboration and communication that informs the work of Moran Cerf, a noted neuroscientist and associate professor of marketing and neuroscience at Kellogg. His research has looked at how exchanging information within a group leads to gains in collective knowledge, abilities, and social structures that are greater than individual group members’ knowledge.

Using an electroencephalogram, which tracks the brain’s electric activity, Cerf and doctoral student Sam Barnett recorded the brain activity of moviegoers in a theater, later examining the data for levels of neural similarity, or cross-brain correlation. The duo found that when people are engaged and interested — a shared experience, a conversation, or even nonverbal communication — their brains react similarly. The content prevents minds from wandering.

That engagement allows team members to share ideas and learn new ones. “Instead of having to experience everything ourselves to learn, we can communicate ideas and replicate content from one brain to another,” Cerf says. This seemingly trivial ability allows us to rapidly enhance knowledge and learning.

“Complex ideas like democracy or the afterlife can now be shared and acted upon,” he adds. “No monkey would risk its life because of the idea that in the next life he will gain 72 bananas. But humans can generate notions, imagine them, share them, believe in them, and live by them. This, in many ways, is one of the key characteristics of humans that allow us to thrive beyond other animals.”

Connect and Communicate

This research has enabled Northwestern to become a respected leader in team science.

In addition to jump-starting a major annual conference, cosponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the NUCATS Collaboration and Team Science Program creates successful collaborations through workshops, seminars, and online learning modules that focus on practical aspects of collaboration — namely getting teams working once they’re formed. “Members of these teams are not necessarily people who have gone to school together, or even grown up in the same part of the world,” says Bonnie Spring, NUCATS director of team science. “There are skills and strategies that can help teams overcome the initial barriers to settling down to work.”

The NUCATS program works to translate the knowledge base of research into the details of actually working on a team: from figuring out what collaboration software to use on a project to developing a new, shared vocabulary and mental model that all researchers on the team can understand. Spring’s group helps teams determine roles, clarify goals, and figure out optimal strategies for meeting management, file sharing, and division of leadership.

Why this level of customized instruction? “These are not people that you have worked with for a long time,” Spring says. “They come from different disciplines, which often means that they’re coming from different cultures.”

Spring provides the example of a surgeon and a computer scientist who collaborated on a project, coming from disciplines whose cultural norms and methodologies were nearly polar opposites. The surgeon believed that the most productive work environments involve a formal, established professional hierarchy and standardized best practices — “You don’t want a surgeon who’s creative,” Spring quips. Meanwhile, the computer scientist advocated that breakthroughs are more likely to emerge from a casual, free-form, nonhierarchical working group whose members push the envelope.

“In the sciences, our methodologies are really like our religions,” says Spring. “The design of studies and analyses used by people from a different science tradition often look profoundly strange or even wrong to us. And this can get in the way of conducting smooth collaborative science.” 

That thorough, customized approach to instruction has led Spring and her team to running workshops and programming for universities that are new to developing interdisciplinary teams. Usually Spring’s group will meet with teams several times over a period of months. “As these new collaborative groups dig deeper, they encounter different kinds of issues and they need a different kind of help,” Spring says.

Playing Matchmaker

In addition to the NUCATS team science department, Northwestern helps bring together researchers through dozens of University Research Institutes and Centers. Yehiely says one of the more exciting trends is that these entities — intrinsically interdisciplinary themselves — are now starting to collaborate with one another, creating an amplifying effect. Examples include the Buffett Institute for Global Studies working with the Institute for Policy Research, and the Northwestern Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering working with the Institute for Sustainability and Energy. Most recently, the University launched the Institute for Innovations in Developmental Sciences, whose mission of transforming science to promote health draws on an especially wide range of Northwestern’s biomedical and social developmental sciences communities.

Another important enabler is the Office of Research Development, which supports collaborative research across disciplines. ORD provides resources, identifies funding opportunities, and hosts events for researchers looking to collaborate. One such event is what led Josh Leonard, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, to his latest project programming synthetic cells with Jeff Sosman, an esteemed oncologist and renowned expert in melanoma.

A faculty member since 2008, Leonard met Sosman through an ORD-organized workshop on cancer systems biology funded by the Northwestern Interdisciplinary 1-2-3 Program, one of the Ofiice for Research-based efforts designed to cultivate bold investigation. After the event, the two continued their conversations, and that’s when Leonard explained his group’s work with synthetic biology technology. “We work to develop the technologies and understanding that enable one to genetically engineer biological systems, such as cells, to carry out customized and useful tasks,” says Leonard. 

The discussion included immunotherapy — when the immune system is reprogrammed to treat an illness — and using this technology to treat melanoma. “Once we have a desired function in mind, we are getting increasingly better at figuring out how to implement it,” Leonard says. “What’s sometimes harder is figuring out which applications may have the greatest impact in the clinic. That’s where connecting my team, who are primarily engineers and scientists, with an expert like Jeff, who has on-the-ground experience, really is transformative.”

Already, the partnership is paying off. Since their meeting, the two have worked on a funding proposal. Sosman is also advising one of Leonard’s MD/PhD students, who is working on engineering immune cells to enable cancer immunotherapy. “Some of the most exciting, impactful work comes from partnerships like this collaboration with Jeff,” Leonard says. “Having the Office for Research enabling such matchmaking is absolutely crucial.”

From theory to practice to implementation, cross-disciplinary research drives innovation at Northwestern. And the continued presence and growth of the interdisciplinary mindset on campus should ensure the University’s place as a global leader in team science and collaboration. “We believe that together we can do things that are not possible as individuals,” says Cerf. “You can’t do it alone. You have to work together. That’s what makes us human.”