As a graduate student, my PhD thesis focused on the function of a single human gene, within a genome of some 20,000 genes. Although this sometimes made my work seem insignificant, I was reminded of how important one small piece of a large puzzle can be when I discovered all the ways the gene knockout cells were disadvantaged. Studying the basic biology of our cells made me appreciate the beautiful complexity of human biology.
While I enjoyed my time discovering the inner workings of our cells, I ultimately discovered that I preferred talking and writing about science to pipetting. I took multiple courses from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, worked as a guest writer whenever I had the chance, and challenged myself to multiple public speaking events. After earning my PhD from Stony Brook University, I had the incredible opportunity to join the world’s leaders in cancer research at the National Cancer Institute.
As a Health Communications Fellow for the Office of Cancer Genomics I found impactful research and inspiring opportunities. I was introduced to the world of cancer genomics, and become enveloped by the promising concepts of team science and precision medicine. After I became familiar with OCG’s mission and collaborative research projects I developed a “Visibility Plan” to enhance the dissemination of data generated by OCG-supported research programs to the cancer research community, a key component of OCG’s mission. As part of this plan I helped OCG establish a presence on Twitter, sharing research updates alongside the Cancer Genome Atlas(TCGA). This opened the door for OCG to participate in an NCI-hosted Twitter chat about #cancergenomics. In addition, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the annual AACR conference in New Orleans, where I presented a poster that detailed OCG-supported datasets and resources. I was able to interact with researchers from around the globe and inform them about OCG’s research and available data; many of these researchers can use this data to advance their own research. In addition, I attended fascinating lectures, from which there was a general consensus that we are at a critical turning point in cancer medicine. The experience was galvanizing.
While these were rewarding experiences, the most influential aspect of my fellowship was being exposed to the collaborative research approach used by OCG. OCG-supported research programs bring together acclaimed investigators from institutions around the world for a common goal: to fight cancer. Compared to investigator-initiated research grants (e.g., R01) most scientists are familiar with, OCG research programs are funded by cooperative agreements (e.g., U01) and contracts. Under a cooperative agreement, competitively selected investigators conduct research that supports specific goals which require collaboration and team work.
This “team science” model is a refreshing approach to research, and has clear advantages. Regular team meetings keep projects on track, generates accountability, and creates an external push towards progress. Team meetings also allow research questions to be debated from multiple angles and perspectives, which leads to creative problem solving. In addition, regular data presentation at monthly meetings provides a platform for feedback and criticism, which often leads to higher quality data.
Another advantage of team science is the opportunity to share ideas, data, and reagents. By sharing unpublished data, team members are able to work with and build upon new findings immediately, rather than waiting long periods until the work is published. Although the publication of negative data is largely discouraged (by most journals), team members are able to share negative data during meetings which saves other researchers in the group from repeating the same experiments. Sharing fledgling hypotheses and burgeoning research stories allows the team to provide critical feedback and sometimes even supporting evidence from independent research work. In addition, sharing reagents and technical expertise is a definite cost-savings approach which allows team members to focus time and funds on additional experiments.
Finally, one of the most influential aspects of team science is the opportunity for collaboration. During my fellowship I witnessed first-hand the generation of collaborations between scientists from different institutions and areas of focus. Through monthly meetings each team member becomes familiar with the strengths and expertise of the others, thus allowing the team to explore new ways to leverage their abilities; this expands the depth and strength of data produced by the team. Through these aspects of team science (regular meetings, sharing, and collaboration) research progress is greatly accelerated.
The collaborative science approach was applauded at the Precision Medicine Initiative Summit when chief of the Urologic Oncology branch at NCI, Dr. W. Marston Linehan, said we “shouldn’t be surprised the progress people can make, working together, if you’re not quite so concerned about who gets the credit … I think we can change the culture.” I believe that as we are propelled forward into the era of precision medicine, we will quickly realize the tremendous benefits of the team science, and it will become a key weapon in our fight against cancer. With collaborative research projects like those supported at OCG, and others like the Ras initiative and the Precision Medicine Initiative, I’m excited to witness and be a part of the advances that the cancer research community will make over the next several years.