The University Record, March 5, 2001

Cyberspace collaboration helps advance AIDS research

By Nancy Ross-Flanigan
News and Information Services

Researcher Stephanie Teasley is coordinating the group’s use of collaborative technology. Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services
Collaborating in cyberspace leads to fresh insights and more efficient use of resources but presents some challenges as well. That’s the lesson learned so far from AIDS researchers who have worked together in a “virtual research center” for the past two years, while physically located at four Midwestern universities.

Stephanie Teasley, an assistant research scientist at the School of Information who is coordinating and studying the group’s use of collaborative technology, reported on the project’s successes and stumbling blocks Feb. 19 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Teasley says the AIDS project differs from ones in which researchers simply share a large database. “With a large database, individual researchers come in, take what they need and leave,” just as they would at a library. “But in this project, they’re getting together on the Internet and deciding what kind of data they want to generate, how to collect it, who should collect it, where to keep it and how to display it. Then, once they’ve all put their data in, they’re meeting over the Internet in real time to look at and discuss it.”

A recent “virtual lab meeting” illustrated the benefits of working this way. Researchers at the University of Minnesota were about to have their regular, weekly lab meeting when they realized they could really use the expertise of collaborators at Northwestern University and a scientific advisory board member in Santa Fe. Teasley arranged for the far-flung scientists—as well as three more who were in different buildings on the Minnesota campus—to join the meeting via PlaceWare Auditorium software, which allows users to broadcast presentations to anyone who has a standard Web browser. The researchers talked to one another over a standard phone line.

“The local people were particularly thrilled because the remote people were fairly interactive during the meeting, and that provided input and perspective that they just wouldn’t have gotten in an all-local meeting,” Teasley says. And because lab technicians and postdoctoral fellows—who do much of the labor behind the research—were present, they could provide specific details about the data that might be lacking in discussions among senior-level scientists.

Fresh perspectives from collaborators on other campuses sometimes take the research in whole new directions. At the very least, the arrangement helps researchers see additional opportunities for gleaning as much information as they can from every tissue and blood sample they collect from patients.

“The data pool increases, but it also goes beyond that to making the most of scarce resources,” Teasley notes. What’s more, the cybercollaboration enhances the sense of shared purpose. As one scientist told Teasley, “Without this technology, we would be just a tissue supplier to the group. Now we’re real partners in the whole project.”

When the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provided funds to set up this “center without walls”—the first of its kind created through the NIH Centers for AIDS Research program—researchers at Northwestern University, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin hoped it would enhance communication but weren’t really sure what to expect. At first, the need to schedule virtual meetings seemed a lot more complicated than just running down the hall to a colleague’s office with a sheaf of freshly collected data.

“Until they really knew how it was going to pay off, it was just one more nagging demand on their to-do list, and not very high up because it went away pretty easily if they ignored it,” Teasley notes. “But now that they’re really working together and have gotten more invested in the work, scheduling has become less of an issue. Now it’s become important enough to them that it’s on the priority list of important everyday or weekly things.”

Teaching the researchers to use the collaborative tools was another challenge. But Teasley and her team worked hard to accommodate every request, so that the scientists “wouldn’t see the technology as something in the way.” Now that their familiarity and confidence with collaborative technology has increased, “they just fire it up and talk to each other.”