Breaking down silos, suiting up for collaboration

“Research is a team sport.”

Sheryl Catz should know. A clinical psychologist with a specialty in behavioral medicine, this professor at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis has received many NIH-supported grants throughout her career. Every research project comes with a new team of players—scientists, patients, stakeholders—whose collective experiences and perspectives lend strength to the final product.

“Currently, I’m working on a project with researchers from four institutions, all from different fields, to develop a mobile app and best practices for smoking cessation based on sound theory and best practice guidelines,” Catz says. “Because it’s collaborative, the result will be a stronger program and more competitive to secure funding.”

Varied views promote deeper understanding of a problem and, oftentimes, different solutions than if only one discipline were considered.

“Traditionally people stay in silos where it is comfortable to work with colleagues who understand you,” says Heather M. Young, founding dean. “We must drop those walls and come together to solve problems, even when it doesn’t come naturally.”

From the outset, Young established a faculty team of experts from a variety of fields in addition to nursing. They represent more than a dozen disciplines and hail from all over the U.S. and beyond. To build greater capacity for collaboration, Young enlisted the help of seasoned researchers with more than five decades of combined expertise in leading research programs, developing structures and processes, and identifying what resonates with funders. Group retreats and one-on-one faculty development sessions led to identifying themes of research in the school.

“Most faculty who follow a traditional trajectory in academia do not experience such progression from the ground up,” says Ester Carolina Apesoa-Varano, an associate professor and sociologist with interests in nursing, women’s health and geriatrics. “It brings many rewards, but it’s not without a lot of work as well. The more diverse the viewpoints, the more work and commitment one has to have to keep an open mind, to be willing to sustain our desire to learn from others and to be inclusive of many perspectives.”

Janet Stemwedel, a philosophy professor at San José State University, wrote in Scientific American, “We find out the difference between objective facts and subjective impressions of the world by actually sharing a world with other people whose subjective impressions about the world differ from our own.”

While researchers aspire to that spirit of sharing, many admit it is not easy and not for everyone.

“Some people have grown up doing research as lone wolves and may not be at a place in their professional journeys where collaboration is possible,” Young says. “But I deeply believe we’ll solve problems better and conduct better research when we collaborate.”

Faculty identified family caregiving as one such theme, leading to the establishment of the Family Caregiving Institute. Collaborations outside of the School of Nursing with other UC Davis experts, community partners and national advocacy groups also continue to grow and promise to deliver positive impacts, including the development of family caregiver videos with AARP, pain-related work with UC Davis collaborators in the Center for Advancing Pain Relief, the improvement of cognitive health and well-being of older Latinos and their families through the Latino Aging Research Resource Center and the integration of technology solutions to support healthy aging at home.

Young says the development of diverse expertise is essential for research in the complexities of human health. At the same time, she adds that developing mutual understanding and finding the synergy of different perspectives also takes effort, commitment and energy. However, Apesoa-Varano says when that collaboration happens, it strengthens the work, brings new opportunities and attracts others to the School of Nursing.

“It takes extra stretching of your brain and your will to actually bring collaboration to life, but this is one of the strengths of doing interdisciplinary, interprofessional work. A good researcher always departs from the assumption that we alone have a limited understanding of the questions we are asking,” she says. “The more time we invest in collaboration, the richer, more fulfilling and more effective we can be for the people we are ultimately trying to help through our research.”