Diverse Teams Provide Insight

IdeaConnection Interview with a Problem Solver
John Pisciotta obtained his PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 2007 in the department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology. At the time he was studying Plasmodium falciparum, the disease-causing agent responsible for malaria. His objective was to figure out how the malaria parasite ingests hemoglobin after invading the red blood cell, and then degrades it for its own nutrients.

Now based at the University of Maryland he studies algae for energy. He is working in a laboratory that is investigating photosynthetic microbial fuel cells, to come up with a way to grow cyanobacteria for the purpose of electricity generation.

He also has a couple of patents issued in the U.S. and a few others that are pending. He spoke to IdeaConnection about his experience as a solver and how one of his teams was able to swiftly work out a solution for a seeker.

photo of John PisciottaI’ve been very interested in inventions and the inventing process for about 12 years and within the past four or five years I’ve become interested in forming invention teams and getting like minded individuals together. I’ve found that there are a number of contests and so just through searching for these contests I came across the IdeaConnection website, and instantly knew it was something I had to join.

I have worked on two challenges, and am working on a third one right now.

Have the two completed challenges met with success?
One did and one didn’t.

I can’t go into details of course, but suffice it to say that the seeker was interested in obtaining a new method for extracting proteins and that’s what we provided them with.

They gave a few criteria and we tried to address that. Our team had a wide range of experts in molecular biology, plant biology and I’m a microbiologist by training with some biochemistry background. We had a very good group facilitator who helped organize the meetings and prevented the team from diverging too far. So I thought it was a very effective team.

The other team was also a chemistry related project which was more of a consumer product. The seeker wanted a handle for a shaving razor that would resist dirt and grime.

I would say that for our winning entry we probably had a good inclination of the winning proposal within two to three meeting days. We would ‘meet’ once a week in the evening for about an hour and by the third meeting we had a good idea. We put together the proposal, and of course as you put together a proposal you are constantly getting new ideas and bouncing them back and forth on team members and improving it. So we submitted that and the seeker came back to us with questions and that set us off on a mental arms race improving our method anyway we could. And it was a great learning experience, it was something that was outside of my particular area of expertise. And all the team members did a great job.

So when you initially submitted the proposal the seeker saw that you nearly had the answer and so prompted you with a few questions to come up with exactly what they wanted?
Yes, that’s exactly right. They let us know they had selected two groups, ours and another and gave us a few questions which gave away more about what they were looking for and so we hit those questions really hard.

What did the financial reward mean to you?
It’s great. It means a lot because previously I had met a little success getting into semi-final rounds of inventing contests and had traveled to great labs like MIT and Oak Ridge where we competed and that was great seeing those historic locations. But winning a challenge is fantastic and getting a little cash is helpful, but for me it is all about the team, the process and coming up with something that’s new. It’s a rewarding feeling.

Before starting a challenge do you have any idea of what the end result might be?
I’d say you have to sign up for challenges that you think you have a shot at, and so they have to be things you know something about to begin with. Maybe have a bit of an idea, but it’s good to go into things with an open mind and listen to your team mates, because they’ve also done that before they signed up. And if you go in with an open mind and direction I think you should do well.

What is the experience like working with strangers?
For me it’s great. These are people that I know who are interested in the challenge. You can go to a cocktail party as a scientist and you may engage someone in conversation who is a non-scientist. You’ll be talking for a few minutes and start to get worked up about what you’re working on and their eyes will start to glaze over. But with these folks on the challenges you know where they are are coming from and are interested too, so right off the bat it’s a great process.

What do you feel is the value of working in a team where people are from different backgrounds and cultures?
I think it is useful. For instance, we had people from South America, Canada, the U.S., and so having people from different climates provided insight into different crops, times of year, soil types, just real on the ground practical information. If you had just a number of folks in a university in one particular city it might be difficult to get all those types of insights.

I think the best way the facilitator helps is to outline the plan specifically, and get everyone to agree to meet on time every week. Once you have that worked out and a good solid team the facilitator’s job is like that of a conductor. They help to steer the group in the right direction and help to identify when we’re moving off topic. Even if they are not an expert in the particular field that is actually a benefit because they can see the big picture better than many of us.

Does the ThinkSpace help?
I think it does. I like the ThinkSpace. I like the chat room because it’s happening in real time and you bounce ideas back and forth.

Do you use any thinking tools?
I do love history and I love to study great previous inventors. My favorites are Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, so studying them is a really a motivator for me. I can recommend two good books on the inventing process, one is called “Innovate by Edison” by Michael Gelb and a good bio of Tesla is called “Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla” by Marc Seifer. So studying those folks and going to their labs and seeing what they did as well learning about artists like Leonardo da Vinci is my main strategy.

I really like IdeaConnection. I think it’s a great way for people to connect from diverse fields, it’s a good for scientists to expand and broaden their horizons. Plus it doesn’t hurt that there these little financial goals that we can work toward. It helps but it isn’t the only thing.

The challenges allow you to investigate new fields that you wouldn’t be able to study in your job or day to day life. When there’s a challenge it really motivates you to try to become an expert in something that you had little idea about previously. And then you find out all kinds of interesting new connections between different fields and it just starts moving you onwards.

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