Multidisciplinary Teamwork: Tips for a Productive and Harmonious Workplace
by Paola Pinti
Interacting with other people can sometimes be hard, even if you like them. Each one of us has our own personality, character, way of communicating and habits, and it can be difficult to engage with people that are different from us. Let’s just think about how much we struggle when sharing a house with another person, that can either be a stranger, a friend, a partner or even a parent – or at least I did! Working with others can be even harder. However, as scientists, we need a team to work together with in order to successfully answer our research questions and, very often, a multidisciplinary team with people with different backgrounds and skills to collaborate towards the same goal. In fact, it is sometimes unlikely that a single person or a single laboratory has all the necessary skills to complete a research project, and becoming effective collaborators is the key to answer our questions and to produce high impact research.
The term ‘multidisciplinary’ and the possibility of working across disciplines has always attracted me to the point I chose to become a biomedical engineer. Biomedical engineering bridges the gap between biology, medicine and engineering, applying engineering principles to develop solutions and systems for healthcare and medicine. This meant I had to develop myself in different areas, some more technical (e.g. maths, physics, computer programming) and some more life sciences-oriented (e.g. anatomy, physiology). However, it was only when I started my PhD that I truly started to experience the ‘multidisciplinarity’. I completed a PhD in Functional Neuroimaging that involved working side-by-side with neuroscientists and doctors to study and understand human brain functioning, and I am now a postdoc in the same field.
Over these years, I learnt how extraordinary it is to work with people with a background different from mine. I could see how each person’s knowledge is essential, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and how everyone’s work needs to be ‘interlocked’ to ensure the success of the research project. By working closely with people with different skills from yours, you have the unique opportunity to learn something completely new every day but also transfer to others some of your knowledge. You can learn from their experience things that you wouldn’t be able to find in books, or that would probably take you a lot of time to learn on your own. For instance, I didn’t know anything about neuroscience and the functioning of our brains. I didn’t know that the prefrontal cortex, the brain region just below our forehead, mediates our social behavior and our ability to identify and understand others’ thoughts and feelings, and that this allows us to successfully interact with other people in our everyday lives. I learnt that these abilities can be impaired in people with autism and that’s one of the reasons why they have severe issues in socializing. I learnt the approaches used by neuroscientists to investigate this and interrogate the brain, and much more.
Tips for Successful Teamwork
Merging fields and people is thus extremely important to find answers to complex scientific problems and to ensure the success of a research project. In order to do so, the team needs to work well together and, more importantly, in harmony. However, some practical challenges of working together need to be considered.
Below, I share with you some of the ‘rules’ that I try to follow day-by-day to make myself enjoyable to work with and that I believe are important to improve the productivity and contribute to the overall success of the team.
1) Be modest. This is one of the most important things for me, not only at work but also in everyday life. Being modest does not mean that you have to diminish yourself or your work or lower your capacities. To me, it means that you should be proud of your accomplishments and acknowledge your skills, but not brag continuously and insistently about yourself and not think that you are better than anybody else. Acknowledge your strengths but also your weaknesses. I believe that knowledge is infinite, we never stop learning. If you’re perceived as an arrogant person who shows off, feels superior to others and has a huge ego, I think it’s very likely that you will push your collaborators away. This could impact the communication within the team, your colleagues might not feel comfortable in discussing new ideas and issues with you, and therefore this will undermine the team’s success.
2) Be open-minded. Truly listen to others and be respectful of others’ ideas. Team meetings, discussions, and brainstorming sessions are key aspects of team-working and success. To best find solutions and make decisions, you have to feel confident and comfortable enough within the team to share and discuss your new ideas or problems, and you have to put the others in the same position. Do not make fun of others’ ideas. Let everyone speak, listen, stay calm and do not interrupt them until they’re done. Learning and sharing new things will not only lead to the team’s success, but also to your personal growth and will enrich your knowledge!
3) Support each other. Ask for help and be willing to help. If your knowledge or expertise can be helpful to any of your colleagues, find time to help them. Even if you are super busy. Offer your help, even if it’s just proofreading your collaborator’s manuscript, or listening to them practicing for a talk. If you can’t solve a problem and you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it. Of course, there has to be a balance: don’t make the others do your work, try on your own first! Supporting each other and feeling supported within the team are extremely important to create a harmonious workplace.
4) Know your role within the team. This is crucial for two reasons: i) To avoid the failure of a multidisciplinary project and not waste resources, everyone needs to know exactly which tasks they as individuals have to accomplish, by which date, who to do it with, and how. ii) To avoid frustration, the team needs to know what each member is expecting to achieve from the project and make sure that everyone is rewarded for their work. In academia, we all have our own agenda. We have to – and are often pressured to – pursue certain goals to advance in our career. For instance, as a postdoc, it is important for me to have first-author publications…’publish or perish’ as some people say. Like me, other postdocs or PhDs within my team have the same goal. Given the fact that the project is multidisciplinary, everyone contributes to a certain aspect of it, and it’s important to plan ahead to ensure that everyone is rewarded, is aware of what their reward will be, and knows who is going to lead which publication. A solution could be to have different publications that focus on different aspects of the project. For example, in my case, I could lead a methodological-oriented publication and my colleagues the neuroscience-oriented publications.
5) Be respectful of other people’s time. We all work under pressure and tight schedules. We very often work on multiple projects at the same time, and we might have very little free time. Therefore, it’s important to have highly productive, effective, and focused meetings. Prior to a meeting, no matter if it’s with your boss, a colleague, or a student, prepare yourself thoroughly on the topic of the meeting and be on time. Everyone has a life and we have to respect others’ schedules.
6) Be reliable. In multidisciplinary or team projects, we find ourselves working on certain aspects of the project based on our expertise. This means that our work very often relies on someone else’s work and vice versa. It is thus very important that we meet deadlines and finish our work on time. No matter how busy you are, make sure you complete your tasks on time as much as you can, and make sure that your team can trust you and rely on you.
7) “There’s no I in team.” Last but not least, I would like to conclude with the expression: “There’s no I in team” – which is also the title of one of my favorite songs by Taking Back Sunday. Any project’s success is the result of the hard work and the collaboration of a team, not of a single person. ‘We’ gets the credit rather than ‘I’, as each ‘I’ contributed to the success. Teamwork matters and, wherever the project is presented, I always like to use and hear others using the pronoun ‘we’.
If you are about to start to work in a multidisciplinary group, or if you are struggling with it, I hope that these tips will help you in building an effective team and working well with your colleagues.
It may be that not everyone agrees with my suggestions, but with this blog post I wanted to share with you my enthusiasm for multidisciplinary teamwork and what I have learned from my experience about working well with others. No one says that it’s easy, but I do hope you will be as lucky as me and have an amazing ‘multidisciplinary’ experience!
Dr. Paola Pinti is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Dept. of Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering, University College London (UCL). Paola is a Biomedical Engineer and her research focus is the use of non-invasive neuroimaging techniques and the development of new analysis algorithms to investigate the neural mechanisms underlying human brain functioning.
Paola has a PhD in Functional Neuroimaging and experience with functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) and functional Infrared Thermal Imaging in the monitoring of cortical and autonomic responses during cognitive tasks. Her current research focuses on the use of wireless fNIRS systems to monitor functional brain activity in real-world contexts and in developing solutions and novel algorithms to overcome methodological issues related to real-life neuroimaging.
Connect with Paola online:
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