Unexpected Insights from Teams of Diverse Expertise

Interview with IdeaConnection problem solver N.Parikshak
By Paul Arnold
A friend and former colleague suggested that N. Parikshak take part in an IdeaConnection challenge and he achieved success with his first one. As an MBPhD student who has gone through medical school and is also in a neuroscience PhD program, he brought considerable expertise to a computational biology challenge.

In this interview, he talks about the experience of working on a virtual team with four others and how they arrived at the solution. He started with his view of collaborative problem solving as a way of doing science.

For computational biology and biological sciences at large it doesn’t happen enough, but it is starting to happen more. It is the way that people do other sciences now, like physics for example. There are big international teams of experts in different areas, because all of these sciences become more and more interdisciplinary and you want a variety of experts. You don’t know when you are going to get insights from someone. Not everyone knows everything, so unexpected insights always come from someone.

Is that the key benefit?

Unexpected insights are really critical, but so is distributing the work over multiple people. There’s something about working on a problem in a parallel fashion as opposed to working on it in a serial fashion that improves the output.

What did this IdeaConnection challenge seek to address?

Actually, I think the challenge highlights the benefits of the approach that I have just been talking about. The nature of the challenge was that there is a company out there that wants to get a broad overview of an area to see where they should invest in computational biotechnology. They want to know what should they be doing in the future and what are the general trends. In order to get a picture of that you need people with diverse backgrounds to really pull together this very big picture, and home in on the important things.

What did this involve?

We had to conceptually frame the entire field, but in a manner that makes it amenable to zooming in on specific areas and deciding what their value might be in the future. It’s kind of like a report of what’s going on in a given market, except the market is computational biology.

We struggled initially to really develop a coherent framework because there are many different areas of computational biology, ranging from genomics to molecular modelling of how drugs bind, to predicting effects of climate on crop yields for example. All of these are in the realms of computational biology and it’s hard to come up with a framework that is going to link them all together.

I guess it is like asking someone to predict the future of, say the movie industry, yet which avenue do you look at? – filming, acting, special effects, 3D etc.

Yes that’s a good analogy. That is what they had in mind, but this is a multiphase project, so the first phase was broad. The next phase which we are on now is to identify past and future trends, and then in the third phase, they will tell us the specific areas they want to hear more about.
How did you find experience of working remotely but collegiately in a team environment?

I think it is very interesting and it is definitely something I will want to pursue in the future. Currently my job involves working in a lab, going there physically and occasionally calling in remotely, but this is the first project I’ve worked on where the entire coordination is remote. Except for my former colleague, I’ve never seen any of these people in real life, and it works surprisingly well. To me, there was no reason why we ever would have needed to meet in person.

So there are benefits of working on a problem solving team that could feedback into your own work?

Definitely. On one hand there’s the academic side and on the other, there’s the more practical side. On the academic side, getting a broad view of your own field and insights from other people on what’s important is really valuable as you are thinking about where you’re investing your personal efforts in the future. If it is worth it for a giant company to invest their time and effort into it, then it must be interesting.

From a more practical perspective, this process highlights the very concrete things that people are looking for in industry which I was less familiar with being in academia. When we had calls with the seeker, they would tell us things like “this is too theoretical” and “this is what we’re going for, this is how we would present it to our colleagues in our company”. So that really gave me a lot of insight into the non-academic end of this world.

Did you encounter any difficulties?

When you are given such a broad challenge, it is hard to know what level of detail to go into and how you want to put it all together. So there was a lot of back and forth work where the document grew and shrunk. It was this process between multiple hands that eventually pruned it down to something that really made sense.

How did you divvy the workload?

The facilitator was very good at making sure the conversation flowed, and pretty hands off as far as content was concerned. She left that mostly to us. Along those lines, we relied on our expertise which was geared towards different areas.

So of the four people on our team, I would say I was the one with the most biomedical expertise. My former colleague has more of the actual computational biology expertise and then we had a third person who had more plant biology expertise. Then there was a fourth person with more of a business background. In the first phase she was more hands off because there wasn’t much of a business component, so it naturally went between three of us initially and then she guided us a little in how to frame it.

Did the disciplines complement each other well?

I would say so. I think it was a great mix of people that I would not necessarily encounter in my day to day work.

Congratulations on receiving a financial reward for the first phase. What did that mean to you?

Oh that was definitely welcome. It is really nice to receive financial compensation for this sort of work and that is definitely a motivating factor behind it.

Would you like to participate in more challenges?

Yes. I am keeping my eyes open for challenges, particularly biomedical ones which will be particularly relevant for me.

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