By Sampsa Hautaniemi

Science is a team effort

Nowadays cancer research, like many other fields, has become team science, where collaboration between experts from different areas is crucial to obtain any medically relevant results. Such collaborations often include several research groups and dozens, if not hundreds, of people, and would be impossible without coordination. For example, in the HERCULES project, surgeons excise tumors from patients, pathologists classify and grade tumors, radiologists interpret computer tomography (CT) or positron-emission tomography (PET) images from patients, cell biologists and geneticists process the material and conduct experiments, and bioinformaticians analyze the data and summarize them in a format that allows to draw conclusions.

It is hard to imagine any individual who could master all these disciplines. Thus, everybody in a successful team science project needs to be able to collaborate and communicate with people from completely different backgrounds and expertise. This is one of the greatest challenges, and also the greatest opportunities, in team science, and something everyone in the project needs to keep in mind.

Keeping your eyes on the common goal

The two key words in successful team science are common goal. In large research projects, it is not unusual that the common goal gets blurred. How to prevent a project falling apart into smaller projects that have very little or nothing to do with each other? I believe the answer is coordination.

The project coordinator is a person who is responsible for making sure that all participants in the project:

  1. know the common goal,
  2. are committed to the common goal, and
  3. work towards the common goal.

This is not as simple as it may sound, and coordinating researchers is sometimes compared to herding cats. In HERCULES, we have put extra effort on communication (regular Skype meetings, internal newsletters, project intranet, messaging apps, etc.) in order to keep everyone’s eyes on the common goal. As the coordinator, I could not be happier about the level of professionalism and response by our collaborators. So, at least in my case, coordinating these researchers has not been like herding cats.

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Obtaining the common goal requires team effort (Photo by Pixabay on

Why don’t you do it?

While there is no dispute on whether coordination is required, typically there is no fierce competition between academics for the coordinator position. Actually, I have noticed that to convince other researchers to coordinate a research project, many academics deliver eloquent speeches that would have made Cicero jealous.

In general, I believe the reason for coordination aversion stems from the innate excitement of all researchers to plan research. Making sure that the plan is followed in real life, solving pragmatic issues that surface and making sure reporting is done in time may sound uninteresting, in particular when there is a hurry to plan more exciting research. Furthermore, since a research plan is typically written years before the actual research is funded and completed, some parts of it may have already become obsolete and need to be replaced with new technology, methodology or idea.

Another factor may be that the coordinator needs to understand and connect researchers from different disciplines. No one can fully master all the disciplines required in a team science project, and going outside one’s own comfort zone can be an unpleasant and perhaps frightening experience.

A coordinator is always a winner

Contrary to common belief, being a coordinator is very rewarding. Yes, research planning is truly exciting, and the coordinator gets much more out from making a project proposal to a funding agency than the partners, whether a project is funded or not. For example, the coordinator gets to know a number of brilliant people who patiently explain their ideas and aims, because everybody knows that if the coordinator does not understand the importance of their research, it will have a minor role in the plan (and a reduced budget).

It is also satisfying to solve various issues, as these provide an excellent opportunity to learn. For example, in the HERCULES project the first pilot experiments using patient material from a surgery did not contain enough cancer cells, which prevented the further use of those data. This issue was discussed and solved by changing the sample processing protocol and, currently, we are analyzing data from hundreds of high-quality samples. As a computational researcher I have also learned things I never would have even thought about. For example, I had no idea about the practical challenges behind obtaining tumor samples from a patient before watching a surgery and discussing with the surgeons. Without expertly performed sample collection and processing (which you can read more about in our earlier post), we wouldn’t have such high quality data.

With a little help from my project manager

Coordinators would be utterly lost without project managers. If you’re an academic researcher hesitating whether to take on the responsibility of coordinating a collaboration project – do it, but find yourself a capable project manager! Project managers take care of much of the day-to-day administrative management of the project, allowing the coordinators to focus on what they are really interested in – the science.

We are now in the middle of our HERCULES project; the first results have been published (you can find them on the project website) and many more are in the making. I am looking forward to the second half of HERCULES!

Photo of Sampsan Hautaniemi

About the author:
Sampsa Hautaniemi is a professor of Systems Biology at the University of Helsinki, Finland. He is the academic coordinator of HERCULES, and many other collaboration projects. You can follow Sampsa and comment this post in Twitter: @Sampsa_H