The “Team Science” approach is everywhere at Clarkson University. It represents a growing trend for researchers with different training and skills to work together, integrating their points of view to address a shared research question.
“Team Science is perfect for Clarkson because we are already known for our leadership in this type of research,” notes Michelle Crimi, Clarkson’s Graduate School Dean. “We are collaborative by nature and by training.”
Mario Wriedt, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biomolecular Science, agrees. “You learn to look at problems from different angles. You don’t know what’s beyond the horizon if you don’t work with other people,” he explains. “For example, working with engineers, we can develop a prototype and create a device. From a purely science perspective, like mine, that wouldn’t be possible.”
At Clarkson, examples of mixed-discipline teams abound. Recently, several faculty members co-published a paper about PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance) removal in the top-tier academic journal “Chemistry of Materials.” Specifically, it detailed new research to remove PFASs from contaminated water.
“This is not only cutting-edge applied research, but it is also a great example of the productivity of multiple collaborator teams here at Clarkson,” says Wriedt. “Colleagues and students from Chemistry, Physics, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, as well as Civil and Environmental Engineering have all been involved.”
Faculty at Clarkson share the belief that team research experiences like these teach students the art of looking at problems from other perspectives. For Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Andrea Ferro, this requires both communication skills and deep disciplinary knowledge. “In discipline-specific communication, everyone already knows the same scientific principles, terms and assumptions. When working with people outside your field, you need to take extra time to clarify all of these things,” she observes.
Clarkson also makes resources available to support the Team Science concept. “We just put out a call for proposals to the faculty for Clarkson Team Science grants and received 11 proposals,” says Dean Crimi, who is also a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
Crimi’s own work revolves around collaborating with engineers and scientists to develop new technologies that treat contaminated groundwater. With the collaboration of economics and social sciences professionals, she ensures every project is globally relevant and beneficial. Health science experts help the team understand contamination scenarios. Thus, students who participate in her projects learn to decipher findings from professionals of various backgrounds and the different terminologies they use to communicate.
“They advance their professional skills by developing empathy and by learning to listen carefully to each other,” she says. “This enables them to develop more diverse and creative solutions and make them better problem solvers. The literature shows, too, that interdisciplinary research pays off in a higher number and higher impact of publications.”
Wriedt has noticed the practical benefits of working on mixed research teams as well. “Taking a multi-discipline approach makes you more competitive when seeking external funding, which wouldn’t be available to single-discipline teams,” he says. “Grant funding also means you can support more students as research assistants. Most federal agencies, like the NSF (National Science Foundation), look positively on proposals from groups using the Team Science model.”
For example, in late 2021, Clarkson professors and collaborators received a US$250,000 NSF award for their research to develop low-cost sensors to detect PFAS in the field. Clarkson’s Centre for Air and Aquatic Resources Engineering and Sciences (CAARES) lent a helping hand to validate the novel sensing technology. Clarkson’s Shipley Centre for Innovation was part of the project as well, helping the team in their entrepreneurial endeavours and providing support and services for broad industry and community adoption.
Ferro uses the image of a “wicked problem” to describe the types of problems Clarkson faculty and their student research teams are trying to solve. These are usually problems that are so complex, with interrelated variables, that solving them is considered challenging, if not impossible. For her, wicked problems expand the scope and impact of work in the lab, and require teams that both complement and test one another’s expertise.
Students participating in such studies develop a great sense of meaning in their work. “They become as deeply affected by the ‘why’ behind their work as they are by the ‘how,’” concludes Crimi.
To learn more about the research disciplines available at Clarkson, click here.