Building Transformative Collaborations to Address Society's Challenges
Published April 14, 2020
As the novel coronavirus pandemic has moved across the globe, it has led to dramatic changes in how science is being done. Researchers are shifting their focus, applying their skills to new fields, and figuring out how to repurpose their equipment and materials. At the heart of all of these efforts is a new wave of international, cross-disciplinary collaborations that could transform the future of STEM.
To help inspire and drive more of these collaborations, we're looking back at stories from our Members who have adopted team approaches. We hope their words can offer tips and ideas for anyone seeking or engaging in this exciting and powerful work.
It wasn't just the great science he worked on that helped Academy Member Daniel L. Kastner win the 2019 Ross Prize. It was also his ability to bring people together, to leverage their strengths, and help them achieve a common goal. One key to his success: “Ideal collaborations are win-win propositions. Trust is the currency of the realm.”
This year's winning team from the Interstellar Initiative included a mechanical engineer, a computational neuroscientist, and a neurobiologist. But according to Academy Member Carlotta Mummolo, it was precisely those different specialties that gave their team strength: "When you exchange ideas with people from different backgrounds, you never know what could come from the conversation. Sometimes that’s how very interesting scientific ideas come about."
After experiencing a volcanic eruption firsthand in his home country of Guatemala, Young Member Luis G. Alvarez jumped at the chance to participate in a Junior Academy Innovation Challenge focused on relief and recovery from natural disasters. Working with teammates from Hungary, Vietnam and the United States, Alvarez used insights from his own experience to inspire his team to devise a winning solution.
One source of collaboration that researchers don't always consider is the general public. For organic chemist and Academy Member Steven Townsend, the public plays a key role in his work. "We're getting a lot of good project ideas from talking to a broad range of people. It's very important to me that the general public understand the science we're doing at a fundamental level because they fund it—I think we owe it to them to explain the research we’re doing and get their feedback."
Sometimes, one of the most important things to do when facing a big problem is to work with others to break it down so that you can figure out where you can intervene. That's exactly the approach taken by Academy Member Megan Cho when she worked with her team on the Academy's recent EdTech Challenge. "These programs give young researchers a systemic way to approach huge problems in a tractable way, giving them a framework and a set of guidelines to not only think about such issues, but also present their solutions in an impactful manner."