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"Conjunction Junction: What's Your Function?- Reflections on Expertise in Grant Teams

“Conjunction Junction: What's Your Function?”

Reflections on Expertise in Grant Teams


Michele A. Zacks, MS, PhD



GrantVentures & University of Arizona


Online Publication Date:

June 16, 2015


I spent the first week of June at the Science of Team Science (SciTS) Conference in Bethesda, MD. This was my first time attending this conference, the stated mission of which is “to help maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of team based research.” Naturally, I expected to leave with an understanding of how collaborative science teams work. At their very best. And, I was certain that I would further stretch my professional growth in research development (RD) to new step and distance goals. Turns out, this sleep-deprived, 4-day mix of breakout groups, 20-minute content-packed talks, and divergent panel discussions had some less predictable offerings.

Fringes of expectations

I wanted prescriptions. Instead, I was provoked into a state of reflection. “On what?,” you might ask.

Well, on my view of myself vis-a-vis the team.

In a SciTS talk by Dr. Kathryn Clancy, we received a crash-course in autoethnography, which Wikipedia defines as “a form of self-reflection and writing that explores the researcher's personal experience and connects this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings.” Being a rather introspective sort of person, my brain cells were firing.

The reveal?

While I expected to be enlightened by the “how-to” of forming successful teams, instead the SciTS take-away for me related to self-reflection on two main questions:

  1. What is my role in the collaborative grant team?

  2. How do my attitudes, approach, and actions impact my RD capabilities?

I was hoping to understand others by attending SciTS. Actually, I discovered that I really could benefit more by visualizing my own role more clearly. And here, I report some of my preliminary in-flight contemplations – some of which may also be useful to other grant professionals – as I returned to my university base of operations.


Facades of uniqueness

First, I discovered that while the science of team science is in its infancy, the study of teams is not. Who knew? Turns out, a lot of SciTS attendees outside the biological, physical, and chemical sciences are well aware of the field of “science and technology studies” (STS). Here, the limited disciplinary focus of my own scientific training was revealed. Some of the SciTS researchers complained that they must contend with scientists' belief that they are unique; this prevents them from seeing the applicability of related scholarship, and consequently, leads to ‘reinvention-of-the-wheel.' I must confess that I am guilty of this thinking; not only in my approach to SciTS, but in my interaction with my RD team. At times, I take comfort in my biomedical and NIH centered-ness. Only recently have I begun to respect and utilize formal project management approaches to organizing grant teams to achieve deadlines. And I definitely infuse the energy of presence into my work, believing I bring a unique expertise to each grant team I work with and also to my RD team. Yet despite the tendency to think I am better in order to simply be valued, often I'm left feeling that I am not considered to be a member of the team. One reason for the latter may be that I work ‘centrally,' that is, based in the Office for Research, rather than in the scientists' group. Working for the principal investigator of the grant can create that natural team bond. Another cause of disconnection may be the perception that I am ‘administrative' because I do not offer the precise subject matter expertise to a given grant; while I have scientific training, I work across a large number of disciplines. By better respecting my own RD contribution, I have the potential to bridge all the functionalities that are critical to grant team building.

Conclusion: The spirit of fancying my uniqueness may be counter to one of connectedness.


Shades of leadership

Intuitively and experientially, I realize that not all team members are equal. The leader-follower dichotomy, and the stricture of a hierarchy, rules the sciences. As such, I anticipated that a significant focus of SciTS would be on the role of leadership. And it was. However, being introduced to autoethnography as a structured process of reflection has me dissecting and analyzing a useful concept that I can apply to my RD suite: informal leadership. My role varies with each group and with each grant submission. As a member of an RD team, I often am a leader – that is, of selected aspects of the grant team process. I lead brainstorming sessions. I coordinate meetings. I even lead the development of the structure (aka, content outline) of the proposal.

Remember School House Rock's Conjunction Junction?

Perhaps I'm the: "And" (add on to the team), the "But" (critic of the team and project), and at other times, the "Or" (substitute or overlapping contributor) in a given grant team. In any of these scenarios, I often feel that I am expendable to the overall forward motion on each proposal. One of the boomerangs I experienced recently was working with a team that had a long-time dedicated editor. This left me feeling a bit hesitant, as I had grown accustomed to being the primary and even authoritative editor. While I always pride myself on keeping the PI's voice in all my editorial suggestions, I was not used to wondering how my sentence edits would be viewed by another faithful, trusted, and experienced editor.

Conclusion: While I'd like to contribute measurably to the team effort, I have to adapt my leadership voice to the circumstances.


Burdens of discipline

At SciTS, being among social scientists, economists, team science facilitators, and federal grant agency staff put me in a philosophical state of mind. I spent a full day traveling and lost significant sleep in search of some nuggets of wisdom. Ultimately, I scored a new set of buzz words, although it was less obvious how I might apply these concepts in my self-reflective obsession: to re-envision my role and realize a new way of conducting myself -- from introductory email to project closeout. How could I think differently? Trained in biomedical research, I'd been used to teaching hospital hierarchy. In my new RD position at a research-intensive academic institution, I've encountered a level of democracy that is unsettling. I was used to the PI making unilateral decisions, and experiencing a culture of silence in team meetings where the PI dictates roles, responsibilities and ideas. Now, not only am I required to input, I am expected to lead meetings. Is the scientific question clear, interesting, worthwhile? Are the aims logical and do they address the question well? Etc. etc. In essence, I am becoming an Interdisciplinary Executive Scientist (IES). This concept, introduced at SciTS by Dr. Christine Hendren, is salient to the RD expertise conundrum; at times, I may have the scientific knowledge whereas other times, I may not. In the interdisciplinary grant realm, this should not be surprising – or disappointing. Again, my role must swivel to a grant advisory locus.

Conclusion: I love and respect depth in scientific expertise, yet I must accept that I now function in a grant ‘practitioner' status where breadth reigns.


Permutations of trust

Trust is a word that came up over and over again in the SciTS sessions. I kept thinking “What does this have to do with me?” I just didn't get it. At first. For me, the issue in team development is not trust; it's credibility. I often equate credibility with credentials, but my teammate pointed out that there's another factor: we must do what we say we are going to do. Call it reliability. Call it commitment. Regardless, this is a critical facet of RD work. Like having the grant writing experience and knowledge, I must also show that I will deliver, and on time.

Conclusion: I have centered my sense of self on scientific expertise. But I must let go of this concept and allow other skills to lead off, and have faith that I will be respected.


So, what's my function?

When the grant team's communication and emotions fluctuate under grant deadline pressure, consider:

  • The value of breadth over depth of knowledge: RD professionals can convey irreplaceable links, bringing perspective to the grant team.

  • The power of finesse in leadership: RD professionals can offer a distinctive specialty, adjusting their ‘shade' of leadership to guide the grant team.

Wherever this SciTS learning takes me next, I know that I will take pride in my expanding contributions. And as I head into my first post-submission team “debriefing,” I hope I'll find the words to express my suggestions not only about how the PI's component assemblage can together create a more effective timeline and write a better proposal – but also how I too could have contributed more effectively to the effort.

In this case, I'll be seeing myself serving a coordinating conjunction-function of the team.