The Importance of Team Science at XSEDE15

By Faith Singer-Villalobos, Communications Manager, Texas Advanced Computing Center

August 7, 2015

“I’m continuously inspired by her passion, her commitment and her innovative approaches for advancing research, education and the recruitment and retention for a larger and more diverse community of practitioners,” said Scott Lathrop, XSEDE director of Education and Outreach, as he introduced Dr. Ann Quiroz Gates to the podium at the 4th annual XSEDE15 conference.

First and foremost, Dr. Gates is a professor and chair of the Computer Science Department at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Importantly, she also directs the NSF-funded Cyber-ShARE Center of Excellence established in 2007. The mission of Cyber-ShARE is as follows:

To advance and integrate cyber-enhanced, collaborative, and interdisciplinary education and research through technologies that support the acquisition, exchange, analysis, integration of data, information and knowledge to solve complex problems.

Among her many other accomplishments, Dr. Gates leads the Computing Alliance for Hispanic Serving Institutions, which focuses on the recruitment, retention and advancement of Hispanics in computing; is a founding member of the National Center for Women in Information Technology; won the 2015 A. Nico Habermann Award and the 2010 Anita Borg award for Social Impact; and she was named by Hispanic Business Magazine as one of the Top 100 Influential Hispanics in 2006.

Her passions are clearly collaborative research and diversity.

“In the last two decades, there has been a surge in investments in large scale team science projects,” Gates said. “The term team science denotes a team of diverse members who conduct research in an interdisciplinary manner. The term convergent research is also often used in this context. The success of working in large, diverse teams are influenced by a variety of factors that impact efficiency, productivity and overall effectiveness.”

In her plenary talk at the XSEDE15 conference, Gates discussed what some of the experts are researching in this exciting and growing field. Her project, Cyber-ShARE, is an example of team science (aka collaborative science). “Cyber-ShARE is an interdisciplinary team across computer science, geological and environmental science. We support interdisciplinary research and collaborations across campus (at UTEP) that broaden interdisciplinary research.”

More and more research is being conducted on the importance of team science. When talking about team science Dr. Gates refers to the National Research Council’s definition of bringing together small teams and larger groups of diverse members to conduct research in an interdependent manner. There are a number of approaches in which team science can be done that can work within and across disciplines; there are also a number of terms to describe what level a team can be at in this continuum, including:

  • Transdisciplinary: integrate and transcend disciplinary approaches to generate fundamentally new conceptual frameworks, theories, models and applications
  • Interdisciplinary: integrate information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts and theories across disciplines, working jointly
  • Multidisciplinary: incorporates two or more disciplines working independently

“A team science approach is needed because of the complexity of the scientific and social challenges we’re facing in this world,” Gates said. “Addressing complex problems requires contributions from different disciplines, communities and professions.”

There is evidence in the form of publications and patents that large, diverse team efforts result in greater productivity, reach, innovation and scientific impact. “Certainly this arises from the ability of the members to draw on each other’s diverse expertise. Diversity influences how decisions are made and can positively impact the group’s effectiveness.”

However, diversity also brings challenges. Gates broke them down into three major groups: 1) Knowledge negotiation and communication; 2) Shared resources; and 3) Team effectiveness.

“Problems exist around knowledge negotiation and communication such as lack of a common vocabulary and inability to communicate about research goals and integrate the solutions around the research problem. Also, oftentimes the teams are geographically dispersed so shared resources or lack thereof must be considered. In addition, being able to identify expertise and organizational boundaries brings about challenges. Misalignment of goals can also lead to conflict. Disciplinary boundaries evolve reflecting the changing nature of goals over time,” Gates said.

So, how do you work in a group with a large number of team members?

It requires communication, coordination and high positive interdependence — members working together to accomplish a shared task. As a result, there has to be strong leadership that can assign and facilitate interdependent tasks that integrate the unique talents of the individual members to accomplish shared goals.

The NSF Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) project is a great example of team science. The project supports the ability of a very large team dispersed around the world to use advanced digital resources and services that are critical to the success of science.

Gates points to the XSEDE Industry Challenge program as an example.

The XSEDE Industry Challenge program brings together researchers, scientists and engineers from academia and industry with interdisciplinary backgrounds, deep knowledge in disciplines, and technical and professional skills. The program is intended to establish a new model for cooperative and collaborative research between industry and academia that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries.

XSEDE believes with inter-industry research there is potential for future economic and societal benefit within both the industrial and academic worlds.

Gates agrees with XSEDE’s view and notes the need for more support of organizations such as XSEDE that have invested in promoting virtual, interdisciplinary communities and projects.

Team science is crucial for the success of projects that involve students, particularly those from underrepresented groups, who wish to become researchers or computer scientists. The Affinity Research Group (ARG) Model identifies students who have the capability but maybe not the competence to be involved in research. The model focuses on developing the social and team building skills needed to be successful researchers and encompasses many of the best practices recommended by experts in team science.

“The premise here is to change the culture by preparing students to effectively work in teams. Students are our future workforce — this work has been published in the Journal of Engineering Education.”

The essential elements of the ARG model are as follows:

  • Establish core purpose
  • Structure positive interdependence
  • Practice promotive interaction
  • Teach professional skills
  • Ensure individual accountability
  • Reflect on how well or poorly the group performs

“You have to work on teaching the skills,” Gates explained. “You can’t assume that students know what they need to know to work effectively. Members of a team must know what their individual role is and how it maps back to the bigger goals and sub-goals.”

In essence, to learn is to become a member of a practicing community imparting tools, language, knowledge and skills and to develop a deep commitment to the work and each other’s success. “Learning takes place in meaningful and authentic activity,” according to Gates. “The work of each individual makes a local contribution as well as a global contribution. Expert participants serve as models for professional practice for novices imparting the community’s values, tools, language and knowledge and skills through the everyday work and interaction. They develop a deep commitment to the work and each other’s development and success.”

Team science is about how the national science community can become more inclusive in what it does, and there is a lot of work being done in the science of team science. Gates concluded by emphasizing that the role of diversity in team science is extremely important and extends to age, gender, ethnicity and culture.

A PDF on “Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science” is available for download at

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