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Collaboration is Essential for Answering Big Questions of the Brain, Leaders and Funders Advise

Joint symposium between Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute and Mount Sinai’s Friedman Brain Institute highlights the importance of building partnerships in neuroscience.

an illustration of collaboration

NEW YORK — Understanding how our brains work may be one of the most exciting challenges of the 21st century, but it’s also one of the most complex. The questions neuroscientists ask are increasingly intricate. The tools they deploy to find answers, such as new imaging technologies that gather massive amounts of data and new mathematical models that make sense of that data, are growing more sophisticated. From multidisciplinary projects that unite theorists and experimentalists to large-scale efforts like the NIH’s BRAIN Initiative, bringing scientists with diverse experience together to explore the mind has become critical to progress.

To discuss how to foster the collaboration that often drives transformative science these days, leaders from research institutes and organizations that fund science got together on May 26. The workshop they participated in took place at Innovators in Neuroscience, a two-day virtual symposium held jointly, in the spirit of collaboration, between Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute and the Friedman Brain Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

"The fact that we as two institutions decided to do a joint symposium like this speaks to the fact that we are aligned in having collaboration as a core principle," said Rui Costa, DVM, PhD, director and CEO of Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute. "Big questions in neuroscience nowadays are so large that you need different expertise; for example, in our Institute experimentalists and theorists go hand and hand in many studies right now."

Working together can help scientists ask better questions and find new solutions when designing their experiments, Dr. Costa added. He highlighted the Zuckerman Institute’s Center for Theoretical Neuroscience and Scientific Platforms, teams that cut across laboratories with expertise in advanced instrumentation, cellular imaging, virology and other areas. He also emphasized the importance of activities like lunch talks for creating spaces where researchers at every stage of their careers can interact.

"We all have the expectation that scientific teams can come together,” said Eric Nestler, MD, PhD, director of the Friedman Institute. “This makes science better. It also makes science a lot more fun."

Dr. Nestler celebrated the work being done at Mount Sinai’s Friedman Institute, such as the pilot grants it offers for collaborative teams. He celebrated clubs the community has developed around shared interests, such as schizophrenia and addiction, which break down silos between labs. A lot of the collaborations in the Friedman Institute, he said, are driven from the bottom-up, by graduate students and postdocs.

We all have the expectation that scientific teams can come together. This makes science better. It also makes science a lot more fun.

Creating the right incentive structures for funding is also critical, said Science Program Officer Katja Brose, PhD, at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). Collaboration is at the heart of the philanthropy’s efforts to fund science, she said.

"Most of our grant programs in some way call for the formation of collaborations, whether it’s a pair [or] larger team-based collaborations," said Dr. Brose. "We think a lot about bringing together groups and teams and individuals that might not work together."

Funding is only one way to catalyze collaboration, said Dr. Brose. She also spoke about the importance of developing shared tools, including data platforms and a recent project to develop new stem cell lines that can be used broadly, a CZI-supported effort bringing together the Jackson Laboratory and the NIH’s Center for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias.

"To have the greatest impact on society, collaboration should extend beyond academia into partnerships with medical practitioners and industry," said Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

She also noted that building fruitful collaboration requires careful thought. It’s important, she said, to make sure that everyone gets recognition — not just the first and last authors on a published research paper, but the theorist who developed the project’s mathematical model or the imaging expert who made the data gathering possible.

"The challenge is how do you achieve [collaboration] in a way that you incentivize researchers and give them recognition," she said.

Such recognition, through annotated CVs that allow scientists to specify their roles, for instance, is especially important for early career scientists. Dr. Volkow highlighted criteria her institute is considering for grant reviews, from how many projects a scientist has helped develop to the success a principal investigator has had in furthering the careers of their trainees and diversifying the workforce.

To help attendees navigate the challenges of building teams, the workshop also included a training on how to develop a collaboration guide: a framework for intentionally defining the aims, activities and responsibilities of a collaboration.

"Setting norms and expectations can save time in the long run," said Lou Woodley, director of the Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement, who led the training. "It can help us not just be focused on outcomes, but on how we get there and what we make time for along the way."

As the workshop ended and participants got ready for other symposium events — from talks on memory and brain health to a jazz session with Zuckerman Jazz Artist in Residence Miguel Zenón — Senior Scientist Darcy Peterka, PhD, offered closing thoughts. “Collaboration has a great value, both scientifically and culturally,” said Dr. Peterka, director of team science and cellular imaging at the Zuckerman Institute. “We want to create a framework where we can treat each other with respect, have a diversity of ideas, and use that to push science forward.”

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