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Get Strategic about Collaboration

Scenarios and challenges in identifying vulnerabilities and creating a plan to mitigate risks.

Ianessa Humbert

DOI: doi:10.1044/cred-pvd-path007

The following is a transcript of the presentation video, edited for clarity.

Collaboration Happens

With the concept of “collaboration happens,” one thing that I really want to point out is that when it happens, the most important thing is to know when it’s working for you, and to know when it’s not working for you.

I’ve never been in a communication disorders department. I started out at the NIH laryngeal and speech section, where there was voice, language, speech, and swallowing happening. But it was happening among biomedical engineers, ENTs, speech pathologists, psychologists, biologists, all of us under Christy Ludlow’s mentorship. Which was cool. We were all looking at the same topic in different ways.

You have people who are of a similar background, who are looking at a multitude of things, and as a result they end up having to reach out because they realize, “Gosh, we don’t have expertise in x, y, z.” That sometimes happens when you’re dealing with new technology. You think, “Oh my gosh, I really want to know how the brain controls XfMRI, wow I really need to talk to folks who understand imaging.” So it can happen that way, out of pure necessity.

But it can happen because the topic is inherently collaborative, as with swallowing, for instance. So there are a couple of different ways to collaborate and the important thing is to figure out how it works best for you.

Having a different approach to research is something that we find even among people in the same topic. Let’s say everyone is really interested in stuttering, for instance. If you are dealing with making a device, you need to deal with biomedical engineers. I know engineers are sometimes the butt of the jokes, but they are different thinkers than some of the people who are in behavioral or perhaps related sciences. You might not be learning a whole lot about an engineer’s view of stuttering, but an engineer’s way of approaching research could be useful for you. My experience has been that, for example, basic scientists might approach things differently from folks who deal with humans, and we can take something from both sides.

We think of science as a team sport. But when I think of team sports, I think of team sports where everyone is agreeing, and team sports where everyone is not agreeing. When you see this, the first thing you think is that we’re all on the same team. But sometimes you butt heads with people you collaborate with. Think synchronized swimming as opposed to hockey, perhaps ice hockey. I’m Canadian, so that’s the first thing I think of with all the fighting and the bloody noses. Sometimes political strategizing with a mentor can really help you navigate difficult situations when you might not have the same goals as your collaborators, without burning bridges.

Collaboration Needs to Be Strategic

Collaboration needs to be strategic. One thing I’ve learned since I’ve been in a communication disorders department is that strategy is everything.

Some of you may or may not know that I’ll be moving to the University of Florida toward the end of the summer. It was just bizarre to me how, even though my degrees are all speech pathology, being faculty in a communication sciences department is completely different from being faculty in a school of medicinewhich is where I’ve been at Hopkins.

At Hopkins, you eat what you kill. So my collaborations were very strategic in terms of who’s getting me my patients, who’s doing this, and it was completely okay to think that way. It was completely okay to look out for yourself because if you don’t fund your salary 100%, well, you’re not going to be here to collaborate with anybody.

But now that I’m moving into a communication disorders department, it’s a different kind of approach in terms of collaboration. Service is on the list now. So I now need to understand how to deal with people who have different things in mind other than “How do I get my next grant?” and “Where is my next publication coming from?” It’s much more student-oriented.

That’s where strategy has had to come into it for mebecause it had a whole lot to do with what my environment is, and there are different goals that fit different environments.

But leveraging a diversity of knowledge extends beyond just the other scientists in the room.

I’ve learned to look for the gatekeepers at the institution. They may not be your department chair. They may not be the dean. Sometimes you think, “If I can get the person on to to help me with X” when really, perhaps it’s the administrative assistant that really is a really good partner for you. And you’re collaborating not just with other scientistsyou’re collaborating with students, you’re collaborating with clinicians who will be helping you with data collection. And their needs and their incentives are as important as yours are. Many of the professional development talks I’ve been to have been about collaborating with other scientists. But you can get all that and then find you can’t get anything done because you forgot about the people who make the whole ship movemainly, your ship. So that’s really something we often forget about, and has been really helpful for me as well.

Unequal intellectual ownership and work load distribution is something we can all relate to. With workload distribution, it’s pretty obvious to most of us if you feel like you’re pulling most of the weight. Sometimes people will, perhaps, lend a name to your project. And we know they are lending their name, and mentorship and expertise as needed. That’s maybe the person who is 5% on your grant, for whom that 5% takes more than half your budget, right? Those are the people who have a lot of gravitas. They are senior people, and they can generally guide your ship.

Sometimes unequal workload distribution can make a collaboration really fall apart. Because you might feel like you’re doing all the work. Or even worse, you feel like you’re doing all the work, and when it comes time for authorship you’re not where you think you should be.

I have found that having very scripted lists of things that need to be done, and who should be doing it, helps. That way you can look at the list and say, “Oh, wow, this is really backed up. Do you recall that we agreed you’d be doing X?” As opposed to both of you assuming that X would be happening. That can really save a lot of relationships.

Learning to manage collaborations, I think, comes from doing your research in advance. When I’m going to collaborate with somebody, I try my best to read more about the kinds of things that they’ve done, I try my best to go to their talks, I try my best to talk to people they’ve collaborated with. I think those are things you can do that will set you up for the comments like, “Yeah this person is just a genius, but kind of moody.” Or whatever subjective information you get, so you can make a decision: “Moody, I can do moody, I think that’s okay. I can do that.” Or, “That’s just not for me.” Sometimes personality and what you know about a topicsometimes they collide.

The last point is: Use common sense. Are you stuck? One thing that I wanted to say about the common sense and are you stuck is something that I think Ed mentioned, which is reading. Read, read, read. I think we have a tendency to read in our field way more than we read in other people’s fields and related fields. Currently, I’m in PM&R (Physical Medicine and Rehab). So I went from having colleagues that were more bioengineer, neuroanatomist, at UW, to OT, PT, SLP, neuropsych and physiatrists. So I had to transform my thinking from more of a basic science modelbecause I was working with some of the neuroanatomists who were doing mouse model morphology type things, to a pretty strong rehab. That worked well for me, as it turned out. Especially because I had to go then and read a whole lot of background stuff so I could have a conversation with potential collaborators who are focused on limbs and ocular-motor, with the neuro folks and vestibular. And I hadn’t even been thinking about rehab in those domains. It seems like it’s common sense for us to read, because we do a lot of reading to be in research in the first place. But then when we get stuck, often it’s going back to PubMed, or wherever you get your science to really say, “I think I just need to take a step back as see what other people are doing. What are other models that are being used?”

So the last point I wanted to make is that collaboration is huge for funding. Learning how to talk to people who don’t know your area is so important for getting collaborators interested in what you’re doing. Because you need them, and sometimes they may not think they need you, and you need to try to appeal to them. But it also matters so much when you’re writing a paper, and when you’re writing a grant.

When we think of the NIH we often think of, “Where is my funding coming from?” We’ve already heard the advice to diversify your grant profile. There’s all these other opportunities. But even within the NIH, even though my grants have been funded by NIDCD, sometimes they’ve been reviewed and had program officers in completely different areasNIA, NCMRRand then NIDCD would maybe go back and take it and fund it. I would have never thought my grants would be reviewed in such different groups.

Writing a paper for a general journal. My conversations with people in a different field have made me frame my significance different from an ASHA journal, for instance, than from a journal of applied physiology where I have to talk about why this matters to the whole system, and it’s not a niche area. Whereas when I go to Dysphagia, I don’t have to go on and on about fluoro, because they know what that is. It has really helped me to learn how to target my audience. And the same for reviewing grants. We always hear that it is not people in your area reviewing grants. It takes grantsmanship skill to be able to write that way. But to be able to talk that way, first, helps you figure out how you’re going to get it on paper. That’s slightly off topic for things like collaboration, but relevant, I think to things that we care about.

Additional Comments

Sumitrajit Dhar, Northwestern University:

In all of this, we should be mindful that collaboration for the sake of collaboration is not productive. You have to be sophisticated in estimating your own skill set. You should know what your own strengths are, what you’re not good at doing, and what NIH thinks you are good at. I might be teaching a class on hearing aids, but if the last paper I wrote on hearing aids was in 2007, I can’t say I’m an expert and don’t need collaborators on an amplification grant I’m submitting today. You need to have a good image of what the world thinks of you, and figure out how you need to supplement that skill set to make your project come to fruition.

Melissa Duff, University of Iowa:

Some of the things I’ve thought about in thinking about collaborators is looking for someone who is honest about what they can do. What skill sets are they going to provide and can they actually deliver those? Are they dependable? They will meet the deadlines, they’ll do the reading, they’ll do the work of understanding your perspective and your discipline. Early on I thought I would work best with people who had the same work habits as I didwhich are largely working in the middle of the night and working in the 48 or so hours before something is due. That has worked okay for me on some occasions, but in collaborating with people who also have that tendency that is tricky. I quickly discovered my best relationships are with people who work differently than me. You have to know yourself and your work style and work ethic and try to match that.

In choosing what collaborations to develop, you want to make sure all parties have something to gain and something at stake. It’s what keeps people motivated and excited about the work. You don’t want to be part of a collaborative team only because you know how to give the CELF or because you have access to a particular population. Those are situations where you’re vulnerable or where it is possible that you’re being used. You want to make sure that you’re in a relationship where your contribution to the science is being valued and respected.

Ianessa Humbert
Johns Hopkins University

Presented at Pathways (2015) as part of a panel session on “Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Winning the Game of Chutes and Ladders.” Hosted by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Research Mentoring Network.

Pathways is sponsored by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through a U24 grant awarded to ASHA.

Copyrighted Material. Reproduced by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in the Clinical Research Education Library with permission from the author or presenter.