Transdisciplinary life science teamwork with challenges

Roger Strand and Dominique Chu

Roger Strand and Dominique Chu lecturing about RRI.

Digital Life Norway Research School's goal is to facilitate transdisciplinary collaboration across research disciplinaries and projects. During the early fall of 2020, we have participated in the new course "Transdisciplinary life science - a Digital Life Norway course". The aim of the course was to teach us how to effectively combine different specialist skills to achieve a common goal, advance our cooperation skills and implement RRI (responsible research and innovation) in our research.

In late August, we met a bunch of other excited and eager academics from NTNU, UiO, Oslo University Hospital, UiB and UiT, at NTNU in Trondheim. Some were pursuing a PhD and others their postdocs. While everyone had varying backgrounds, all had a common aim: How can I cooperate and work better with people with different expertise than myself?  We were divided into four groups of 3-5 people, each group with its own project with varying topics. The project goals ranged from increasing the resolution of microscopy pictures to identifying target genes for cancer therapy to comparing inference methods for gene regulatory networks. Each group was supervised by one or more professors and researchers from different Norwegian universities.


During the first plenary meeting, which was set for two full days, we got to know the other participants better, learn about their research projects and have engaging discussions about how RRI affects our work. We also learned about data management, which was entirely new to us, but gee, how vital data management is for efficient collaboration within research! We also got to know our new "co-workers" outside of their natural habitats at a dinner where we got the opportunity to socialize before we all spread across Norway again.

After the first plenary meeting, we were set free to team up with our group to explore a new research field. We now had six weeks to understand the theoretical background, plan our project and learn new analysis tools to examine data. A common factor for all groups was that we worked completely digitally. For many, this was a new way of working on a project. We had to develop our organizational skills, find suitable ways to share files and divide tasks efficiently to meet our goals. A challenge was to organize everyone's crowded time-schedules and set realistic deadlines. It was hard to know how long something completely unfamiliar would take. However, good teamwork and engaged project supervisors made sure the project always progressed nicely.  Team(s-)work makes the dream work. 

Even though at times it was tiresome to only work remotely, we feel like this was good practice for future collaborations. We had to find useful strategies for how to work digitally together on documents and scripts, remotely teach each other new programming languages and improve our interaction skills.  This new form of collaboration will most likely become more and more important, especially in times like these when travelling is restricted, while at the same time more and more international collaborations are started.

After six, at times stressful but also very productive weeks, we met and presented our work in a secondary plenary meeting. Every group presented their scientific projects and reflected on their teamwork. Interestingly, all groups had chosen very different ways to carry out their projects. Some learned together but worked individually, others divided tasks according to their competence-level, whereas others distributed their work equally. We guess this shows there are many ways to Rome. Overall, we were impressed by the progress everyone had made and how different all the projects were. More importantly, it was amazing to see how much it is possible to do in so little time and without much prior knowledge.  I think we can all be proud of what we achieved in these weeks, and how much we have learned about a field unrelated to our main project!

We enjoyed this course because it was not result-oriented as most other courses are – but rather put weight on us creating experiences and cooperating. It's the journey that is the destination – and it was nice to be transdisciplinary with wonderful people on the way.

By Alexander W. Fiedler and Madeleine S. Gundersen
Published Nov. 8, 2020 3:48 PM - Last modified Nov. 17, 2020 11:16 AM