|Researcher Stephanie Teasley is coordinating the groups use of collaborative technology. Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services|
Stephanie Teasley, an assistant research scientist at the School of Information who is coordinating and studying the groups use of collaborative technology, reported on the projects 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, theyre 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 theyve all put their data in, theyre 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 scientistsas well as three more who were in different buildings on the Minnesota campusto 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 wouldnt have gotten in an all-local meeting, Teasley says. And because lab technicians and postdoctoral fellowswho do much of the labor behind the researchwere 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. Whats 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 were real partners in the whole project.
When the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provided funds to set up this center without wallsthe first of its kind created through the NIH Centers for AIDS Research programresearchers at Northwestern University, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin hoped it would enhance communication but werent 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 colleagues 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 theyre really working together and have gotten more invested in the work, scheduling has become less of an issue. Now its become important enough to them that its 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 wouldnt 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.