Implementing team science is paying off for UB researchers

Gabriela K. Popescu, PhD, Department of Biochemistry, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and her team celebrating new research space in the then-recently inaugurated downtown location of the Jacobs School. (Photo taken prior to COVID-19 pandemic.).

Gabriela K. Popescu, PhD, Department of Biochemistry, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and her team celebrating new research space in the then-recently inaugurated downtown location of the Jacobs School. (Photo taken prior to COVID-19 pandemic.)

Published April 6, 2021


As highlighted in a recent UB Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) feature, researchers and teams that previously implemented elements of team science in their work were far better prepared to navigate the changes wrought by COVID than those that did not.

UB CTSI Team Science Core Director Ekaterina I. Noyes, PhD, MPH, Division of Health Services Policy and Practice, Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health, School of Public Health and Health Professions, says that one of the most notable UB researchers who has found success with a team science-based approach is Gabriela K. Popescu, PhD, Department of Biochemistry, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“Dr. Popescu is a very insightful team leader in research settings, in which teams used to be highly uncommon,” Noyes says. “She is a basic scientist, meaning she runs a research lab and hires graduate students and technicians to perform experiments under her direction.”

Usually, a lab is a highly hierarchical environment. Popescu’s laboratory, Noyes says, is run in a totally different manner.

“She elicits opinions and feedback,” Noyes says. “She discusses laboratory techniques and career goals with her students. Her approach and attitude bring forth more motivated and effective members of her team.”

The need for the expertise of others

As a postdoctoral fellow at the University at Buffalo conducting an individual research project, Popescu realized that to get answers to the questions she was pursuing, she needed the expertise of other researchers. To that end, Popescu traveled to New Haven, Connecticut, in order to work two weeks with collaborators at Yale University. Doing so would provide her with the necessary expertise to conduct her research. The result was an often-cited paper (“Reaction mechanism determines NMDA receptor response to repetitive stimulation”) published in Nature in 2004.

“That successful initial collaboration was the best incentive to continue to collaborate with others whenever our expertise is complementary and goals are aligned,” Popescu says.

In 2006, Popescu assembled her first research team. She considered all of the necessary tasks to accomplish her research, determined needed levels of expertise, and recruited a team of four. This paved the way for a team-first approach in the years to come.

“For the past 16 years, I have led dynamic teams that also included undergraduate students and residents, and on two occasions senior scientists have joined the lab to learn techniques developed in my lab,” she says.

Gabriela K. Popescu.

Gabriela K. Popescu, PhD

“I value the diverse talents, levels of expertise, and interests in my team. This diversity sparks mutual learning and is conducive to discovery.”

Complementary expertise and common goals

As Popescu’s research has expanded, she has initiated collaborations with other teams — a strategy referred to as “team of teams” — working at UB and at other institutions. Most recently, she won funding from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) in collaboration with teams from Brown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She continues to find that while collaborating across teams can be a more complex process than working alone, it is just as rewarding.

Its success, she believes, is predicated upon two fundamental principles: complementary expertise and a common goal (or unity of purpose).

“I am a firm subscriber to the belief that any leader is only as successful as her team,” Popescu says. “As my team has grown and matured, we can afford to take on more sophisticated projects and expand into new areas. An ongoing collaboration between my lab in the Jacobs School and the lab led by my colleague Wenjun Zheng, PhD, a professor in the department of physics in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences, resulted in a collaborative NIH grant and more recently in a PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) paper.”

For researchers interested in collaboration, Popescu recommends looking closely at the goals of the project, identifying the necessary expertise, and recognizing the available budget.

“Team science allows for answering more complex questions, with more sophisticated approaches, and often in a more rigorous manner,” she says. “However, it also requires additional layers of skill, such as integrating research results, coordinating schedules, managing scientists, allocating resources, and many others. As with any new endeavor, before deciding to embrace team science, make sure to gather the relevant information, consider honing your leadership skills, and seek the advice of trusted colleagues or mentors.”

The impact of team science on community-based research

One specific area of research at UB in which Noyes sees the impact of a team science approach is in partnerships with community stakeholders.

“From the community point of view, academics and especially medical centers are perceived as very ivory tower, high-in-the-sky,” Noyes says. “However, even the most brilliant people do not know everything.”

One key distinction? Incentives, which for non-researchers can be very different.

“Community based participatory research involves volunteers,” she says. “They do not need published papers or academic tenure. They are motivated by something completely different, like impact on their community or peer recognition. So, this team approach — having a shared mental model and an understanding of every person’s unique expertise and unique contributions — is another example of where teamwork can really move the needle.”

CTSI Community Engagement Core Director Laurene Tumiel-Berhalter, PhD, Department of Family Medicine, Jacobs School, is a proponent of team science who has seen its impact first-hand.

“The goal of my work is to improve the delivery of healthcare for underserved communities,” she explains. “My community partners, the Patient Voices Network, and other organizational community providers are equal members of my team alongside researchers from other disciplines. To make changes in the healthcare delivery system you have to truly understand the challenges being faced by practices and the patients they serve. They have great insight into the problems that need to be addressed and are brilliant in identifying solutions that need to be implemented and evaluated. “

Tumiel-Berhalter concurs with Noyes as to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in contributing to new teams and new and diverse voices onto healthcare teams.

“There is so much to understand about COVID that we must develop teams of researchers from various disciplines to work together for our most creative work,” she says.

Laurene Tumiel-Berhalter, PhD.

Laurene Tumiel-Berhalter, PhD

“We need to include the voices of front-line workers, providers, and representatives from diverse communities to truly understand the issues and brainstorm relevant and targeted solutions.”

Spreading the team science message

With researchers like Popescu and Tumiel-Berhalter as advocates, the CTSI’s Team Science Core is making inroads at UB in demonstrating the positive impacts of this approach. Noyes and CTSI Team Science Specialist Elizabeth Bengert continually explore ways in which team science can fit organically into research done by other CTSI cores, and throughout UB.

“We recognize that just a couple of academics knowing and being able to do it is not enough to change a culture,” Noyes says. “So, we are partnering now with other departments and developing evidence-based strategies to more organically implement teamwork at UB and with our partners.”

Noyes sees integration between the Team Science Core and other CTSI cores as key. While the focus of some cores is very specific, team science, she says, is different. After all, Noyes explains, researchers almost always can benefit from better teamwork.

“You may need two people or 20 people; you may need a team just to help you set up your projects or you may need that team for 20 years. Either way, understanding fundamental principles of teamwork is helpful.”

Therefore, the CTSI Team Science Core is focused on working with all CTSI cores and key functions to identify areas where things organically fit together. In her words, “If doing one program can help address specific objectives of multiple cores, that would be a win-win.”

Watch for additional information on team science in the weeks to come on the CTSI website, the Translational Spotlight newsletter, and the CTSI’s Twitter and Facebook pages.