We need to train our students in multi-disciplinary team science

This post explains how interdisciplinary team science can help students tackle research efforts and societal challenges and, importantly, how this approach could be taught at institutes of higher education. It also offers insights and ideas from the iGEM competitions as examples to learn from.

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How can we integrate multi-disciplinary scientific teamwork into educational curricula to train students to thrive in and support a changing academic research culture and make them into better trained agents to address global challenges?

For decades, major life science research efforts like the human genome project [1] or the brain initiative [2] have become too big and ambitious to be handled by a single research group. They rather require that many groups with similar expertise team up, share data and work towards the common goal.

Pressing societal challenges, such as climate change, renewable energy supply or the control of the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, have even grown bigger in scope. They are multifactorial and cannot be appropriately conceptualized, defined, or examined from a single scientific disciplinary perspective. They need to be addressed by multi-disciplinary teams stretching from social to economic to the natural sciences and engineering.

Recently, the academic culture at institutes of higher education – a community that for decades has incentivized individual achievements – is slowly embracing this change. For example, Dutch academics started broadly promoting a change in the academic reward and incentive system to stimulate open science and team science, which was recently embraced by major Dutch funding bodies [3]. Team science is thereby defined as a research endeavor where researchers from various disciplinary fields, jointly take on a scientific challenge in which their individual strengths and expertise demonstrably reinforce each other.

The biotech and pharmaceutical industries have long demanded the skill of teamwork beyond discipline borders. When talking to colleagues that transitioned from academic research into industry, one of the main differences they experience is the requirement for teamwork. The project goal is the major factor, not the name of the individual researcher. 

Learning to think as a team

Amidst this change, I think it is important that we do not forget to adequately train our students – the next generation of scientist – in this important multi-disciplinary team science mindset and give them early on skills to thrive in it. This will be important to support the necessary change in academic research culture, but also to make them better trained agents for addressing global challenges within the private sector. And I am convinced that we as their educator will learn just as much.

From my long-term experience with iGEM – a global, team-based synthetic biology competition that integrates genetic engineering, mathematical modeling, computer science, human practices and art – I learned that most students find it very challenging at first to perform in an interdisciplinary team. Most of them have only completed individual or, at most, group assignments within a narrow discipline range. Students find it difficult that other team members do not understand their scientific jargon, or they are unable to see how their expertise might fit into the team and be useful; students also face organizational and interpersonal challenges in integrating into a team. Over the course of the iGEM program they usually learn to understand and integrate concepts from other disciplines, to trust a colleague in their expertise and work ethics, to communicate failures and change in plans early on. They also learn how exciting and motivating it can be to think together and to be part of something bigger. Basically, expertise that one would call “team-based research and collaborative problem-solving skills”.

Most students say that they also grew within their own discipline: explaining scientific concepts of their own field to another team member requires students to gain a deeper understanding of their own subject matter, as well as giving them a feeling for what type of expertise they actually have and how valuable it is.

That means team science requires skills and a specific open mindset that are not intuitive but need to be trained to be mastered. And surely, while mentoring these teams I learned just as much as the students did – I have never been trained in team science either.

Teaching for both depth and collaboration

Education in interdisciplinary team science is thereby distinct from curricula that offer interdisciplinary studies, where students get trained in various related disciplines. While those programs are highly useful in building life-science generalists with broad integrated knowledge, we also need students that are highly specialized but still have the ability to convey concepts and integrate into teams that speak different scientific languages.

As such, I do not think interdisciplinary teamwork should replace individual assignments or a deep education in a specific field, but rather should be blended into the curriculum and we should start thinking about how to do this.

Below, I summarize some resources that might help to start thinking about team science and possibilities to integrate it into higher education curricula. This list is not exhaustive, but rather contains resources that I am aware of and consider interesting.

One apparent theme is that many existing educational programs are competition-based “challenges”, meaning that students build an idea around a societally relevant challenge and get evaluated in comparison to peers. In my own experience, the “working on your own idea” is a good scheme to elicit excitement and a base for good team spirit. While the “competition” idea gives teams extra motivation (and works well!), I think we should keep in mind that effective team science is (and should be taught as) a cooperative endeavor where often not a single idea (or team) wins, but many ideas blended together make the break to address a given challenge.[4]

The iGEM competition as a team science educational program to learn from

iGEM stands for the “International Genetically Engineered Machine” competition, and is the premier student competition in Synthetic Biology. It started as a regional competition within Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston in 2004 and rapidly grew into a global event with over 300 teams from various Universities and high-schools participating each year. Teams design and implement a “genetically engineered machine” – basically a microorganism-based solution to address a local or global challenge – over the summer and present their work at the Giant Jamboree in the Fall. Dedicated jamboree judges select winners of different awards and medals based on defined criteria. Most of the teams – at least at the institutions that I have worked at – are interdisciplinary, with students from molecular biology, chemistry, computer science and art. This is necessary to meet the medal criteria of developing proper genetic designs, but also integrating mathematical modeling or artificial intelligence (AI) and eventually communicating the science to peers, the judges and the public via videos and a wiki-based website.

Besides the technical side, teams must situate their projects into a social and environmental context, to better understand, for example, the safety and security issues that might influence the design and use of their technologies. This process is called “integrated human practices” and involves identifying and reaching out to the various real-world stakeholders that might be involved in the use of the engineered machine, discuss with them, and feed the gained knowledge back into the scientific design of the project. Finally, teams often need to raise the necessary funds for their project by attracting company sponsorships and setting up crowdfunding campaigns.

The iGEM blog and the iGEM digest provide insights into student experiences, for example: “How iGEM changed my career” or “Lessons shared by iGEM 2020 Teams”.

The iGEM project promotional videos give a great overview on the different project ideas, ranging from bacteria smelling like banana (one of the early projects developed 15 years ago) to a rapid detection device for infectious diseases (Rapidemic, grant prize winner in 2020).

Having been involved in iGEM for more than ten years, it was interesting to follow how it matured as a global team-based educational program over the last 17 years. iGEM is a global program and of course goes beyond what could be implemented in a national University curriculum. Still, it offers valuable ideas and lessons learned for team-based education as well as for global team science in general. For example, iGEM’s journey illuminates the challenge of diversity and inclusiveness with respect to both humans and access to technology. The iGEM diversity committee together with past iGEM teams offers resources on how to build inclusive teams. On the resources side, some teams find it challenging to participate by the high cost of registration and by the cost associated with project development (for example access to synthetic DNA or sequencing). Other issues include access to web resources such as YouTube or Zoom that we consider normal in Europe but that are not accessible in some places of the world.

Other team-based life-science competitions

The Biodesign Challenge is a US competition-based educational program fostering collaboration between scientists and artists that just celebrated its 5th anniversary. Its vision is “to shape the first generation of biodesigners by partnering high school and university students with scientists, artists, and designers to envision, create, and critique transformational applications in biotech.” (quoted from the website).

The Wageningen University in the Netherlands organizes interdisciplinary team-based challenges around food and climate innovation for students worldwide called WUR student challenges. Past topics can be explored here.

Other resources

Below you can find several literature resources for team building in the sciences and within education.

References

  1. https://www.genome.gov/human-genome-project
  2. https://braininitiative.nih.gov
  3. https://scienceintransition.nl/en/nieuws/netherlands-develop-new-approach-to-recognising-and-rewarding-academics
  4. Related discussion on competition in science: https://www.voicesyoungacademics.nl/articles/science-is-not-like-competitive-sports

Photo by Vlad Hilitanu on Unsplash

Sonja Billerbeck

Assistant Professor, University of Groningen