Helping scientists communicate, collaborate and achieve their goals

MSU AgBioResearch scientists are helping interdisciplinary science teams become stronger through the Toolbox Dialog Initiative.

O'Rourke and Vasko plan a Toolbox Dialog Initiative session.

For the past several years, major research funding agencies have started to emphasize the importance of assembling teams of experts drawn from a range of scientific disciplines. The advantages of this transdisciplinary approach are relatively unquestionable: the more specialists and experts from different areas of expertise, the greater the chance of formulating well-rounded, practical solutions.

This has been especially important in agriculture and natural resources, where topics such as climate change, biotechnology and food security constitute some of the most pressing, divisive and vital issues confronting us today. They are issues that require the attention of a multitude of scientific disciplines.

Bringing together a group of gifted, highly qualified researchers does not automatically translate to a cohesive team. The very diversity of experience and training that makes an interdisciplinary team an effective scientific asset can also lead to misunderstandings, inefficiencies and interpersonal conflict. This is where the Toolbox Dialog Initiative (TDI), based at Michigan State University (MSU), comes in to play. MSU AgBioResearch philosopher Michael O’Rourke and MSU AgBioResearch research associate and program manager Stephanie Vasko lead scientific communication efforts locally, nationally and internationally, in collaboration with research partners at universities throughout the country.

The concept of TDI was derived 11 years ago to help graduate students work together in interdisciplinary teams as part of their scientific training. It uses tailored dialogue-based workshops to help teams enhance communication and collaborative capacity.

“The approach enabled students to understand where each team member was coming from as a scientist,” said O’Rourke, professor in the MSU Department of Philosophy. “The hope was that developing this mutual understanding would make it easier for them to work together and make decisions collaboratively.”

After publishing the results of the initial project, O’Rourke and his colleagues at the University of Idaho were able to secure financial support from the National Science Foundation to expand TDI to benefit the scientific community at large.

Since its inception, O’Rourke and the TDI team have conducted more than 200 workshops with teams of scientists around the world. Participants use interpersonal dialogue to help understand one another’s core beliefs and values and cultivate a better understanding of how each of them views the project.

To foster dialogue between team members, O’Rourke and his collaborators survey and interview the individuals involved and, from the results, develop dialogue prompts to use to get the team talking. During the ensuing conversations, TDI researchers evaluate shifts in the values and opinions of the members, using those to further probe the team dynamic.

“We use the dialogue sessions as moments where team members really get to know one another,” said Vasko, who has worked with TDI since 2015. “Dialogue can unpack and make explicit things that were originally only implicit. This can include previously existing processes, group dynamics, differences in vocabulary and power dynamics within a group. Our process helps illuminate those areas before they become problems.”

Failure to recognize potential problem areas, O’Rourke points out, can jeopardize an entire research project. He points to a genre of scientific study termed ‘failure literature,’ devoted to deconstructing the reasons that particular projects fall apart.

In many cases, these studies find that it was a failure of the team to effectively integrate the perspectives of its members that resulted in the project’s not operating up to its potential. As science continues to trend toward greater and greater collaboration, mitigating this threat will only become more important.

After over a decade of helping research teams become stronger, O’Rourke and Vasko are working to expand TDI and maximize its ability to help teams worldwide. Where before the TDI reputation spread primarily by word of mouth, through Vasko’s efforts and renewed support from MSU, TDI is now reorganizing to actively reach new teams and collaborations.

“We’ve gone from being a ragtag bunch of excited researchers to being a group the university wants to expand and become self-sustaining,” O’Rourke said. “Stephanie is spearheading our ability to do that, and it’s become more important than ever that we do. When we’re working with teams studying oil remediation, sustainability or the climate, they are dealing with some of the most crucial issues of our time. We’re doing what we can to help them be successful.”

For Vasko, bringing researchers closer together and helping them work at their optimum capacity is its own reward.

“I can’t think of anything more important that I could be doing for the scientific community,” Vasko said. “The toolbox project is a great thing the university is doing for scientists everywhere.”

For more on the Toolbox Dialog Initiative, visit

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