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Magnifying impact: UGA seeding formation of broad research teams

By Michael Terrazas/UGA Today

Flu and infectious disease. Climate change. Aging populations. Global food supply. Big problems require big solutions—and the world is full of big problems like these.

Over the past several years, the University of Georgia has taken this statement as a challenge. And, with the help and support of a few carefully designed initiatives, UGA faculty are answering by teaming up with colleagues near and far to tackle problems that are simply too big for any one discipline to handle.

From the creation of the Office for Proposal Enhancement (OPE) to the debut of Presidential Interdisciplinary Seed Grant program, and through the launch of the Leading Large Interdisciplinary Research Teams (L2-IRT) workshop series, the university offers a portfolio of programs intended to help investigators form, initially fund and effectively run research teams. All of these programs are managed in whole or in part by Integrative Teams Initiatives in the Office of Research under the direction of Associate Vice President Larry Hornak.

The results have been impressive. Just one example: Through an overall UGA investment of $3.9 million over its first three cohorts, the Presidential Interdisciplinary Seed Grant program has supported projects that attracted nearly $322 million in subsequent external funding, resulting in an overall ROI of about 83 to 1.

But even more important is the ultimate impact of the research being funded. Multiple UGA research centers grew out of these interdisciplinary research teams, and these collections of investigators are making a difference right now, today, in the lives of people in Georgia and around the country and the world.

Investigators, assemble

Like superheroes, research teams all have their own origin stories. Some are the product of a single researcher’s vision, made real through an evangelistic determination. Others emerge organically from a group of investigators with a common interest in a problem, and still others form as spinoffs to an existing effort.

For associate professors Jenay Beer and Lisa Renzi-Hammond, co-directors of UGA’s Cognitive Aging Research and Education (CARE) Center, their project was born in a single conversation that took physical form and became part of the College of Public Health’s décor.

“One day we were sitting in a conference room and talking about our shared personal history of dementia in our families,” Beer said. “Lisa and I are very visual people, and the room had these big, glass windows, so we took our markers and started drawing on the glass walls our idea of a clinic and research space. I like to think it was a very ‘Beautiful Mind’ moment. That diagram stayed on the wall for two years!”

“We might have been a little bummed when someone finally cleaned the glass,” Renzi-Hammond added.

Lisa Renzi-Hammond stands in front of the glass wall at the College of Public Health where she and her Cognitive Aging Research and Education (CARE) Center co-director, Jenay Beer, first sketched out their idea for a new initiative to help Georgians living with dementia. “We might have been a little bummed when someone finally cleaned the glass,” Renzi-Hammond said. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker)

Brian Bledsoe, on the other hand, arrived at UGA in 2016 from Colorado State University with a mission.

“I was very happy and satisfied where I was, but when the opportunity came along, I saw tremendous potential at UGA for this kind of institute,” said Bledsoe, Athletic Association Professor in the College of Engineering and director of the Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems. “I spent that first year having conversations with folks from over a dozen academic units across campus with interest and expertise in resilience and water and infrastructure, and [what became IRIS] grew out of a small group of faculty spanning all these disciplines: engineering, ecology, economics, social science, law and policy, landscape architecture and many others.”

Yet another type of backstory lies behind Mark Tompkins’ team. Tompkins, Athletic Association Distinguished Professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, had been an investigator with the Emory-UGA Center for Excellence in Influence Research and Surveillance, and he had aspirations of launching a similar program based in Athens when he assembled a team to apply for a Presidential Interdisciplinary Seed Grant in the first cohort in 2017.

Initially focused on the impact of microbial diversity on respiratory disease, Tompkins’ team ended up splitting into (at least) two different thrusts: One, led by Tompkins and Regents’ and Georgia Athletics Association Professor Pej Rohani in the Odum School of Ecology, developed a proposal that eventually became the Center for Influenza Disease and Emergence Research (CIDER), funded in 2021 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for seven years and up to $92 million.

One of initiatives taken to incentivize and recognize team research is the Team Impact Award, added to UGA’s Research Awards in 2022. Brian Bledsoe and the team behind the Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems took home the inaugural award. Pictured here are (left to right) Scott Pippin, Bledsoe, Shana Jones, Don Nelson and Mark Risse, representing such diverse units as the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, College of Engineering, Franklin College of Arts & Sciences, and UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker)

The other, led by Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar Ted Ross, resulted in the largest single federal award in UGA’s history: One of NIH’s Collaborative Influenza Vaccine Innovation Centers was awarded to Rossand his team, to the tune of up to $130 million over seven years.

“Research teams are living, dynamic things,” Hornak said. “It’s not a linear process of moving from one program to the next in a rigid, defined order. Often you’re connecting smaller teams together, and this collection of teams—or what’s termed a ‘multi-team’—may hit upon different catalysts and end up moving in particular, different directions.”

Optimizing your team

Forming the team, of course, is merely a first step in changing the world. Teams are made up of individuals, each having their own priorities and collaborative style. Aside from the ground-level tasks of getting the actual work done, the team must be managed—and that can be a demanding task. Research on team science also shows there is an optimal team size for a given project yet no exact formula for how to arrive at it, just best practices to serve as a guide.

So how does a leader balance the value of adding more talent versus the unwieldiness of managing a larger team?

“Often when forming research teams, people are so worried about delivering the end product that they don’t think about who they’re working with or how they’re working with them,” said Karen Burg, vice president for research. “Intra-team dynamics are incredibly important to the team’s success. I liken it to a obstacle course challenge run, where teams compete but the team members on each team work with each other to overcome obstacles. It takes the talents of each team member and their willingness to collaborate, identifying each other’s talents and thinking creatively, in order for the team members to successfully cross the finish line together.”

UGA now offers a range of options to help its faculty become better leaders (and members) of research teams. In addition to assisting team formation, the modest financial awards available through the Teaming for Interdisciplinary Research (TIR) Pre-Seed Program allow newly formed groups to get to know each other and begin formative activities that help build strong working relationships among the team.

Other programs offer—even demand—more targeted training. The L2-IRT workshops offer a mix of instruction, guest speakers and hands-on activities to help researchers understand the nuances of working in an interdisciplinary team. It’s no accident that Dorothy Carter, a former UGA faculty member in industrial/organizational psychology, remains one of the workshop leaders.

“Faculty members are asked to do many things that are outside of typical ‘research’ or ‘teaching’ activities, and a lot of times, these are not skills they have received training to do,” said Carter, now an associate professor at Michigan State University. “The L2-IRT training program is meant to provide faculty with a deeper understanding of what it takes to lead large interdisciplinary teams and multiteam systems.

“It’s clear the participants are passionate about helping the world by achieving their big picture research goals, and they’re looking for help.”

Coincidentally, another source of that help also resides in East Lansing, Michigan, at Carter’s new university. The Toolbox Dialogue Initiative (TDI) is a consulting organization based at Michigan State intended to facilitate collaborative research, and the quality of its training is well known to decision-makers at federal granting agencies. Recipients of the 2023 Presidential Interdisciplinary Seed Grants will work with TDI to help move their projects forward.

“They must do it. It’s written into the solicitation: ‘Thou shalt spend some of your money to work with TDI,’” Hornak said. “There’s a method to this. TDI is one of a handful of groups nationally used by the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies when they form large, integrative centers. When our seed grant awardees submit subsequent proposals, we coach them: ‘Make sure you mention that you had this training and that your team is well-formed and operating effectively as a result.’”

The small level of discretionary funding provided by the TIR Pre-Seed Program can be enabling not only for team formation but also for proposal success, especially when received at the opportune time. Tompkins’ CIDER proposal was nudged along by exactly this kind of support.

“We used it to hold a meeting near the Atlanta airport so people could fly in,” he said. “We supported everyone getting together in the conference room of a hotel for the evening before and then nine hours the next day, and we fleshed out the outline of the contract we were going to submit. If we hadn’t gotten those resources, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. It was transformative in the sense that it created a lot of ideas.”

Indeed, proposal development is at the heart of UGA’s team research support. For years OPE has helped investigators—particularly those working on very large proposals—make their bids as strong and airtight as possible. In 2021, Hornak’s group launched its Major Integrative Proposal Planning (MIPP) award, which pulls in OPE’s existing services and provides additional resources for an even more robust grant proposal planning and development process that starts much earlier.

The MIPP program works with the PI and their unit to give an investigator time to concentrate on proposal development. Large integrative center proposals, including research workforce, outreach and innovation components, can take two years or more to produce a proposal. MIPP provides resources for professional project management of that process, as well as for facilitating a “red team” of external reviewers to offer input on the proposal draft.

Mark Tompkins and Pejman Rohani, from the College of Veterinary Medicine and Odum School of Ecology, respectively, assembled a multi-institutional team that in 2021 landed one of UGA’s largest awards in history, the Center for Influenza Disease and Emergence Research, awarded up to $92 million over seven years by the National Institutes of Health. (Photo by Peter Frey)

“We look for people with deep disciplinary knowledge but also a broader view of how that discipline connects to others,” Hornak said. “What we found to be most helpful is if the team lead has a professional network who we can select the red team from people who have a passion for the topic and are committed to giving strong, constructive criticism. That’s the sweet spot.”

Working to success

One of the biggest barriers to either forming or joining a team, Hornak said, is overcoming the notion that team research will add countless hours to a faculty member’s workload. He said working in a team does take more effort but also pays great dividends both professionally and personally. There’s no question that leading a research team comes with additional work, and he said the key is for leaders to build a strong core team whom they trust and can delegate to leveraging their unique strengths and passions. Investing the time up front to form that trusted core team will enhance—even multiply—the effectiveness of the team and allow for greater impact.

“It definitely has been a lot of work,” Beer said of launching the CARE Center. “But our goal as we grow and bring on more people is not to add to their plate, but to figure out how they can fit what they’re already doing into this existing, large research program.

One key to recruiting research team members is to find a cause that inspires passion. CARE Center co-directors Renzi-Hammond (left) and Beer said their project’s mission sells itself. “I have not yet met a UGA faculty member,” Renzi-Hammond said, “who heard about CARE And didn’t say, ‘Cool, can I help?’” (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker)

“One thing that has helped is thinking about the public health problem with a really large lens,” she continued. “Let’s take diet and nutrition. What you eat that is good for your heart is also good for your brain; so with folks who are doing research in cardiovascular health, that applies to dementia health, as well. We’re not bringing on team members and urging them to change their trajectories or research programs—there’s a lot that fits under this large umbrella.”

“We do hear from some faculty who ask whether UGA still emphasizes and values individual work, and we absolutely do,” Hornak said. “What we’re doing is urging people to look around and see what larger effort their individual work might fit into, so that the proverbial whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

For those research teams that are well thought out, well formed and well trained, there can be considerable returns. The financial ROI is just one metric. Over the first three cohorts of the Presidential Interdisciplinary Seed Grants, awards were made to 30 teams comprising some 329 individuals. As of mid-2023, more than 170 scholarly publications had emerged from those teams, along with nearly 400 research presentations.

And, of course, there is the ultimate payoff: impact. Progress toward a broadly effective flu vaccine, as well as improving our understanding the nature of seasonal flu infection and developing better plans for the next pandemic, continue under the CIDER and CIVIC awards. IRIS researchers work on mitigating the impact of flood events through more widespread use of natural infrastructure. And every day the CARE Center welcomes new dementia patients and their families, connecting them with the diagnostic, therapeutic and caregiving resources they need.

“It goes back to being at a land-grant university,” Bledsoe said. “We’re inherently oriented toward the improvement of people’s lives. IRIS faculty are here in part because they have that commitment to the greater good, and they know enough to know they can’t achieve that without a lot of collaboration.”

“I have not yet met a UGA faculty member who heard about CARE and didn’t say, ‘Cool, can I help?’” Renzi-Hammond said. “Our goal is not just to make something that serves Georgia and the university. Once this is all built, once the model is tried and true, any land-grant university in the country should be able to do it as well.”


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