A physicist, a neuroscientist and an artist walk into a conference centre…

We have been conducting our team-science town halls at MCRC as many of you will have attended. Our team science workshop, jointly run with HeRC on 31st July, feeds directly into this work.
This week we welcome guest blogger Nina Hayes-Thompson, HeRC Communications Officer, to tell you more.


During their time at the Science of Team Science (SciTS) conference in April 2018, Rachel Chown (MCRC) and Ruth Norris (HeRC) attended a fantastic tutorial on the ‘Interdisciplinary Translation’ technique; so were thrilled when its leader, Andi Hess, agreed to re-run it here at The University of Manchester. Andi Hess, based at Arizona State University and Director of the Interdisciplinary Translation and Integration Sciences Initiative (ITISI), is a leading expert in team science and interdisciplinary working for research.


As a university committed to harnessing the ‘team science’ model of working, this invited event was a perfect opportunity for the Manchester community to learn theory and practical skills from an international leader in the field.


After introductions from the organisers (Health eResearch Centre and Manchester Cancer Research Centre), this informal, interactive half-day session started with detailed introductions from all delegates. More in-depth than the usual round-robin, this was a vital stage to demonstrate two types of diversity: across participants, and within personal career path.


This highlighted the variety in the 32 delegates’ current roles, spanning the schools of medicine, health, computer science and business, with 1/3 working in academics/research and 2/3 in administration/professional services. From physics to neuroscience to fine art, educational backgrounds were also diverse; perhaps most interestingly, the majority had moved through a number of disciplines and domains from their initial training to reach their current role, e.g. starfish biology to research programme management!


In a funding and research environment increasingly rewarding cross-field collaborations, effective communication across disciplines using different disciplinary languages is paramount to success. However, explained Andi, when teams become pan-disciplinary, though they have more knowledge and expertise, the role of communication becomes pivotal due to the different ‘languages’ spoken.



For example, the word ‘vector’ is a term used in physics, maths and computer science, though it means something totally different in each of these disciplines. Without clarification, a project involving people from these three disciplines would be at very high risk of confusion and potential project failure.


Scientific terms can also mean something different to scientists and the public: to most people, ‘positive feedback’ sounds like a good thing, but to a scientist can mean a feedback loop such as a vicious cycle.



Enter the ‘Interdisciplinary Translator’, a bespoke, specialised role assigned to facilitate and enhance a team’s combined expertise with the aim of enhancing interdisciplinary teams to work better together, benefit from their multiple viewpoints and produce better outcomes.


Delegates learned the value of this skill first-hand in a team activity designed to demonstrate the use of an Interdisciplinary Translator to develop a ‘boundary object’, a visual representation of a complex system created, agreed and understood by all parties agnostic of discipline. In breakout groups of 6, teams watched a video of a real-life complex system: disease and poverty cycle in a developing country.


Each nominated one person to be briefly trained up as an interdisciplinary translator who then facilitated the discussion to create a boundary object to describe the system in the video.




It turned out that everyone – of course – placed importance on very different aspects of the information, presenting and forming their ideas in very different ways and through differing domain lenses. The interdisciplinary translator’s role was to facilitate input from every participant, breaking down the impact of hierarchy and power structures and creating an output that includes the vital contribution of all voices in the group.


The exercise was followed by an interactive session with each group presenting their boundary objects, followed by an in-depth reflection on the activity and the effect of the interdisciplinary translator role. Participants reported that the translator enhanced the process in a range of ways including facilitating, clarifying and inclusion.


Watch a video of the highlights and impact on delegates below:


For more information on team science and interdisciplinary working activities planned for the University of Manchester community, contact or


To find out more about ITISI, click here.


For more information about upcoming events and workshops at HeRC, click here.


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