UB, Vanderbilt partner to test efficacy of interdisciplinary team science


Attendees were invited on an expedition to nearby Albright-Knox Art Gallery to "reframe" their perception of the opioid misuse epidemic.

Published December 4, 2017

Innovation Labs bring together early-career scholars with experienced mentors to drive novel solutions to grand challenges in translational research.

“We’ve been pleased with our prior experience with the facilitated workshop format. This grant provides us with an opportunity to rigorously assess the impact of Innovation Labs and to define best practices in facilitating collaboration ”
Larry Hawk, PhD, Innovation Lab Co-investigator
UB Professor of Psychology

A partnership between the UB Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) and the Vanderbilt Institute for Clinical and Translational Research (VICTR) brought together a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional, multi-cultural group of 22 early-career scholars from across the United States to explore “Radical Solutions to the Opioid Misuse Epidemic.”

This first Innovation Lab was conducted in downtown Buffalo in early November 2017.  It consisted of five days of intensive activities designed to promote creativity and collaboration.  A second Innovation Lab, under the direction of VICTR, will be held in April of 2018 in northern Virginia. It will focus on the theme of “Staying Power: Sustaining the Effects of Obesity, Fitness, and Lifestyle Interventions.” The labs are funded by the National Center for the Advancement of Translational Science (NCATS).

The Innovation Lab concept is designed to counteract the many forces that push for mono-disciplinary, incremental science. Innovation Labs (also known as “sandpits” or “ideas labs”) were developed by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in 2003. They were introduced into the US in 2011, and have been run by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health on a set of problems ranging from synthetic biology to cybersecurity to cancer risk behavior.

At the core of any Innovation Lab is the combination of a difficult problem, a diverse group of participants and a facilitated five-day journey through the creative problem-solving process.

“A lot of time you’ll find grant-writing workshops that are a day long, and those workshops often are focused on the individual,” said R. Lorraine Collins, PhD, Associate Dean for Research and a professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions. She served as director of Innovation Lab Buffalo. “This one really focused on innovative ideas that came out of the interaction of people from different disciplines.”

The goal is to develop novel ideas for solutions to a defined problem within the five-day time period. The methodology consists of steps that include: defining the scope of the problem, generating new ideas and collaborations for multi-disciplinary research to address the problem, and refining those ideas and collaborations to create innovative proposals. 

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The process is guided by a team of facilitators and faculty mentors with real-world experience in clinical research. The facilitators focus on the underlying creative processes, while the mentors serve both as reviewers and coaches, reinforcing novel ideas while attending to the practical realities of obtaining grants and conducting clinical trials. Seven faculty members served as mentors for Innovation Lab Buffalo.

“What the mentors tried to do, myself included, was to serve as a sounding board for ideas,” said Collins. “We suggested resources that the groups might not be aware of or might want to use, and we promoted collaboration among participants.”

If a mentor heard an idea in one group, and then a similar idea in another group, she might bring those people together to form a new grouping. “It was very fluid,” said Collins, “the groupings were very fluid but as the ideas evolved they became more crystallized.”

On the final day the groups presented their ideas. “Most of the ideas involved three to five investigators,” said Collins. “They definitely were collaborating in the context of the lab and the hope is that when they go back to their home institutions those collaborations will continue, and new collaborations will be built.”

“I don’t know how to do science in anything that isn’t team science, but that just happens to be the research universe I live in,” said Katherine Hartmann, MD, PhD, Director of Education, Training and Career Development for VICTR and an epidemiologist in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She is one of two co-principal investigators on the Innovation Labs NCATS administrative supplementary grant and served as a mentor in Buffalo.

“I wouldn’t expect to do quantitative science without clinical experts in that area, without people who are statistically savvy in that space, without people who are measurement experts or imaging experts,” she said. “I guess the problems, the issues, the fun questions seem big enough to need all of that, and I think that’s one of the interesting pieces for us.”

Larry Hawk, PhD, a professor in UB’s Department of Psychology, is co-investigator and led the team that designed and wrote the grant that funds the Innovation Labs. Timothy Murphy, MD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Medicine and the director of UB’s CTSI, is the other co-principal investigator.

“This partnership with the Vanderbilt Institute for Clinical and Translational Research is really exciting,” said Hawk. “We’ve been pleased with our prior experience with the facilitated workshop format. This grant provides us with an opportunity to rigorously assess the impact of Innovation Labs and to define best practices in facilitating collaboration, while enhancing innovative translational research generally, and contributing to the national CTSA network.”

On day one, attendees were invited on an expedition to nearby Albright-Knox Art Gallery for “Out of Sight: Art of the Senses,” an exhibition of contemporary art that’s meant to engage multiple sensory modalities beyond the visual. Andy Burnett, a creativity consultant with Knowinnovation Inc. who helped design and facilitate the Innovation Labs, pointed out the similarity between the gaze of the art patron and the empirical, observational skills of the scientist.

“Part of what we wanted to achieve was encouraging people to look and then to think about how they see. … Opioid abuse is seen as, and framed as, a medical problem, and clearly there are many medical aspects to it. However, if we’re going to develop radical approaches to it, we’ve got to think more broadly on the subject.

“What was fascinating about the exhibit was the whole process of looking more deeply and becoming aware of how quickly we reach set conclusions,” he said. “If we can take the time to look, we will see much more deeply.”

While interdisciplinary team science is recognized as a driver of innovative, even paradigm-shifting science, there are few institutional mechanisms to promote it, except on an ad hoc basis, and many obstacles to overcome. Events like the UB and Vanderbilt University Innovation Labs are part of an effort to change that culture; to see if there are ways to actively encourage and nurture productive team science. In the months to come, organizers will be tracking outcomes of the collaborations that formed in Buffalo, including grant applications and publications that result from those ideas.

“If we get people craving those kinds of connections at an event like this then they’ll do their science moving forward really differently,” said Hartmann. “We’ll break that cycle of apprenticeship to a single person, with a narrow disciplinary focus, and then the multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary-to-transdisciplinary puzzle pieces will fall into place on their own, just because people crave working together.

“They’ll be different in how they do their science, they’ll be different in how they train their mentees, and scientists will take advantage of each other’s expertise better moving into the future, regardless of what the topic is. That’s why I think it’s so cool.”

The theme of the next Innovation Lab is “Staying Power: Sustaining the Effects of Obesity, Fitness, and Lifestyle Interventions.” It will be held at the Airlie Conference Center in Warrenton, VA, April 23-27, 2018. Applications will be accepted until January 12. More details will be posted to the Innovations Lab website as they become available.