Creating a culture of collaboration

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April 28, 2017
Researchers in Druker Lab

We’ve often said that no one beats cancer alone. That’s true for researchers as well as patients. Teamwork and mutual support are just as important in the lab as they are at the in clinics at Kohler Pavilion.

“We believe that no one person has the key to unlock the mysteries of cancer,” said Sadik Esener, Ph.D., director of CEDAR, the Knight Cancer Institute’s Center for Early Detection and Research. “But when many exceptional people — all with different but complementary areas of expertise — work together toward a common goal, we believe amazing things will happen.”  

Esener and Dr. Brian Druker, director of the Knight Cancer Institute, are building the nation’s largest research team focused solely on the problem of early cancer detection and treatment. And they aren’t just building the team — they’re intentionally designing the environment this team will work in. An environment that will support and advance early detection research.

An environment of collaboration.

“We want to bring mathematicians, engineers, physicians, biochemists, and biologists all together,” said Esener. “But it is very rare that these people can speak the same language and have the same culture.”  

Esener understands that the level of seamless collaboration necessary for major advances won’t “just happen.” It, too, will have to be engineered.

“Typically in academic institutions we have silos,” Esener said. “But CEDAR is like a company that has a central goal, a clear task. So what we are trying to establish is a culture that’s based on projects and teams. This allows for creative thinking and focused implementation.”

As Esener and his team recruit more researchers and build their workplace, they are guarding against the formation of scientific silos and eliminating conditions that lead to turf wars over resources. How are they doing this? By organizing CEDAR to facilitate teamwork and cross-pollination of ideas. For instance:

  • All equipment will be shared. There is no ownership of tools, space, or resources.
  • Project teams, not individual scientists, will receive funding to tackle difficult problems.
  • Project leadership will be open to everyone regardless of rank or experience, since great ideas can come from anyone.
  • Leadership, faculty, and staff will have a commitment to shared success.

How will this work in practice? Six or seven people will be working on one project, and each will be working on two to three other projects at the same time. Scientific discussions will be open; graduate students and faculty will have a voice. This is a departure from traditional lab environments in which researchers focus on their own projects with limited mixing of ideas and people from other groups. 

Ultimately, Esener is working to build not just an interdisciplinary research staff, but a community and a culture. Despite their diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise, he expects all new recruits to CEDAR to share common values, such as open-mindedness, a willingness to mentor and a dedication to the overall vision. As Esener said, “We believe that team science is the way to achieve our goal: to save lives, and to preserve the quality of life for cancer patients.”

Category: Cancer

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