Building a Thriving Research Team

A group of faculty and students at Calvin University is developing a curriculum to support team-based research. Their aim is to incorporate communal and individual professional skills into research team processes to foster thriving community and improved vocational discernment for students. They seek to build a community of scientists whose scholarship aligns with their values: authentic community, member well-being, and scientific excellence. Their hope is that this blog series will spark a dialog about measures of success that are not typically prioritized in scholarly work and ways this project could be expanded to other colleges and universities, both within and beyond the Christian tradition.

The events of the past year and our experiences with SARS-CoV-2 have demonstrated that the ability of scientists with diverse expertise to work together is vital to scientific success. A whole field of study, known as the Science of Team Science, has arisen around identifying strategies to bring scientists together to confront complex questions and solve problems effectively. Team Science is defined as “research conducted by more than one individual in an interdependent fashion, including research conducted by small teams and larger groups” (Cooke & Hilton, 2015). 

Many potential benefits of the team approach to science have been identified, for example, 1) enhanced capacity to achieve goals, 2) increased productivity and influence, and 3) improved outcomes for individual team members (Cooke, 2015; DeHart, 2017). However, several factors hinder attainment of the benefits of team science. These problems include inter-task dependence, lack of common vocabulary (communication challenges), and goal misalignment (lack of commitment) (Bennett et al., 2010; Cooke, 2015). As the Science of Team Science has illuminated, and our global experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has exemplified, students entering scientific careers will need to be able to work effectively as members of multi-disciplinary teams.

As faculty engaged in Team Science research at a faith-based undergraduate institution, we wondered what the culture, values, and practices of our tradition could add to our approach of preparing students for work in team settings. In reflecting on the goals of Team Science, we recognized that there are interesting parallels to the goals of intentional Christian communities, including longevity, perseverance, productivity, and member well-being. Perseverance, even in the face of significant challenges, can lead to the identification of creative solutions to complicated problems. Longevity provides the time and commitment required to develop solutions and overcome challenges. Both a Christian community and Team Science community need to be productive. While the productive outputs of each are different, for both, the products serve as a measure of healthy community. Another measure of health in both scientific and faith-based communities is the well-being and growth of each community member. Even if the project has potential for high productivity, scientists will not stay in Team Science projects if their own well-being or growth is inhibited. Well-being and growth are required in individuals for maximum productive output and thriving of the team. Similarly, in the Christian context, individual growth and well-being in one’s faith journey is supported by and can strengthen a Christian community. There is a beautiful process of individual and communal reciprocity in both Team Science and Christian communities.

We believe that the practices used by Christian communities to achieve overall health and well-being and allow for productivity and longevity can also be effective in a Team Science setting. We have designed a curriculum that explores the practices employed by successful Christian communities and their applications in Team Science settings. As we prepare for the summer research season, we are refining our training curriculum. Not only will we teach new students technical laboratory skills and research protocols, but we will also introduce students to Christian practices that support the development of thriving teams and team members. Each week we will introduce a practice or set of related practices that serve as the focus of learning, discussion, and personal reflection during bi-weekly research team meetings (or online forums when in-person meetings are not possible). After this thematic overview, students and faculty will be challenged to employ the practice in their research setting throughout the week and beyond. The lessons, discussions, and practices challenge students to increase awareness of their individual strengths with the goal of building community, allowing research teams to work more efficiently and productively together and preparing students for future careers in collaborative research settings. 

The Christian practices we have chosen to focus on can be divided into three categories. Overarching “missional” practices—service, mentoring, and justice—form the framework and purpose of the community. We understand service as the outward discipline emanating from a deep awareness of God at our center. True service ministers simply and faithfully by reflecting the helping, caring, and sharing of love of God in the world. In this context, mentoring is approached as the relationship of accompanying and encouraging others to grow in their God-given potential. Finally, justice is understood as the motivation for loving others by seeking their well-being, protection, gain, and fair treatment.

Stewardship, gratitude, humility, confession, and rest—these Christian practices work together to build character strengths in the individual and promote the thriving of the community as a whole.

Under the umbrella of the missional practices are “communal” and “individual” practices including study, stewardship, gratitude, humility, confession, and rest. These Christian practices work together to build character strengths in the individual and promote the thriving of the community as a whole. We use the missional practices to shape our approach to teaching and engaging with students on the various communal and individual practices. Our hope is that these practices will improve the functioning and productivity of our teams as well as aid students in their own thoughtful vocational discernment about possible careers in research and the sciences.

Over the next months, we will share more about these practices and the curriculum that we have developed to encourage the use of these practices in research settings, a faculty development workshop that we are conducting at Calvin to train mentors to use the curriculum, and the ways that students engage with the practices in their research spaces. We intend to conduct a systematic quantitative and qualitative analysis to assess the effect of employing these practices in research communities among both our students and faculty. We hope to continue to refine the curriculum and training so that it can be used by faculty at other faith-based institutions. A longer-term goal is to “translate” these practices into a secular vocabulary and develop workshops to train research faculty. Stay tuned!  

References

Bennett, L., Gadlin, H., & Levine-Finley, S. (2010). Collaboration and Team Science: A Field Guide. Updated edition can be found through the National Institute of Health here.

Cooke, N. J. & Hinton, M. (2015). Enhancing the effectiveness of team science. APLU ANNUAL MEETING November 15, 2015. 19. Accompanying report can be accessed here.

DeHart, D. (2017). Team science: A qualitative study of benefits, challenges, and lessons learned. The Social Science Journal54. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.soscij.2017.07.009

To read the next posts in this series, see “Practicing Humility in the Sciences” and “The Vocation of Science.”


TS & CP (Team Science & Christian Practices): Our team vision is to create a community at Calvin where the low-profile aspects of science (such as student training, mentoring, and collaboration) are valued alongside the high-profile aspects (publications and grants). We believe that being at a Christian university provides us with the unique opportunity to explore how our faith could improve our ability to train students and participate in team-based research projects.

Julie Yonker (pictured far left) is a professor of psychology and public health. Her research focuses on positive contributors to health and well-being as well as religiosity and virtue development in emerging adulthood. The TS & CP team also includes Hannah Hooley, Rachael Baker, and Amy Wilstermann (pictured left to right). Hannah Hooley is a student, majoring in psychology and social work. She plans on pursuing her MSW and working with substance use prevention initiatives in youth. Her research assistance on this project has been invaluable. Hannah also works in the Service-Learning Center of Calvin University. Rachael Baker is an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry. Her research focuses on mitochondrial rare diseases and what they teach us about the genetic basis of hearing as well as ways to serve and support the rare disease community as scientists. Amy Wilstermann is a professor of biology. Her research focuses on the molecular basis of mitochondrial rare diseases. She and Rachael are co-founders of the Rare Disease Network, a collaborative initiative focused on bringing members of the rare disease community together to learn from and support one another.

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