Cross-Disciplinary Team Research
Cross Disciplinary Team Research in Skin Science

The skin science team meets on the ninth floor of the Engineering Research Center (ERC)

This year, the Office of Research launched the strategic collaborative research grant program, offering awards of $125,000 to two cross-disciplinary research teams as part of UC’s Third Century commitment to invest in strategic research initiatives. One of the first teams to participate in the program is working on promising advancements and technology in the field of skin science. The five principle investigators (PIs) are developing a sensor to non-invasively and accurately measure Cortisol levels through skin.

To spread awareness of the opportunities available for cross-disciplinary team research at UC, the Office of Research has launched a marketing campaign to promote and support such initiatives. The Cross-Disciplinary Team Research website contains information and resources to help faculty successfully implement integrative research designs. As part of this campaign, the skin science team agreed to meet with UCommunicate Consultant, Hannah Back, and Executive Staff Assistant for the Office of Research, Nikki Arde, to talk about their work.

Meet the minds Dr. Gerald Kasting, Dr. Steven Boyce, Dr. Yoonjee Park, Dr. Leyla Esfandiari and Dr. Jason Heikenfeld

Dr. Gerald Kasting, Dr. Steven Boyce, Dr. Yoonjee Park, Dr. Leyla Esfandiari and Dr. Jason Heikenfeld

The skin science team represents 3 colleges and 5 departments at the PI level. Drs. Esfandiari and Park are assistant professors in the College of Engineering & Applied Science (CEAS), recently hired as part of the college’s “50 in 5” initiative. Dr. Esfandiari’s work specializes in biosensors, with dual appointments in the electrical engineering and biomedical engineering departments, and Dr. Park’s work is in chemical engineering. Dr. Boyce (College of Medicine, Department of Surgery) and Dr. Kasting’s (James L. Winkle College of Pharmacy) research on skin science has spanned multiple decades, both together and individually. CEAS is also home to Dr. Heikenfeld who studies electrical engineering and has previously collaborated with Drs. Kasting and Boyce on skin science research.

The work done by the skin science team also involves two undergraduate students, five graduates, two post-docs, and a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Two graduate students are funded through the grant, providing both professional development and financial assistance to these well-qualified students.

“This team,” notes Dr. Boyce, “is just one piece of a program that has existed at UC for decades.”

During the initial forming stage of the team’s development, even those with years-long commitment to skin science were aware of the need for a good mix of experience. Senior faculty possess the background and know-how to mentor junior faculty through the research process, while junior faculty, in turn, provide the enthusiastic commitment to success that comes from the importance of career-defining moves in the early stages of an academic career. Dr. Esfandiari is one of those highly committed individuals, providing scientific input in design and development of the biosensor for detecting cortisol. Besides her scientific contributions she provides leadership in areas like team communication, administrative organization, and morale, which is essential for a successful team.

The skin science team has impressed stakeholders at the Office of Research by demonstrating a high level of cohesion and integration, despite only having met as a group for the first time in March 2015. When talking about their project, the team identified four areas of strength that have and will continue to contribute to their success.

Cross-disciplinary team research requires a shared passion for innovation
“This project is interesting, but I’m guessing we will be able to trump it if we continue working together,” Heikenfeld points out to nods of agreement from the group. “It’s always great when you’ve got a good project, but it’s even better when you’ve got a great group of people.” The team appreciates the need for not only a shared topic of interest, but a shared passion for utilizing combined expertise to present novel ideas and solutions.

Boyce noted that, “When you have a number of specialists together, it presents the opportunity for synergy and the opportunity for addressing higher order, more complicated problems than any of us could address individually.” Encouragement for and resources related to cross-disciplinary research are increasingly present at the national level, with benefits trickling down to in-house funding programs like UC’s strategic collaborative research grant program. “All the easy problems have been solved,” jokes Boyce, “collaboration is where I see skin science and many fields of science going.”

A suite of professional collaborations tools
The researchers were quick to assure us that there wasn’t any kind of structured process by which the team was successfully formed, though they acknowledged the importance of honesty in the forming stage of group development. Collaborators need to be up-front about their obligations, and how much time and resources they can commit to a project. Eventually, everyone comes to an agreement about the expectations of the team, and the real work can begin.

Each month, the team meets on the ninth floor of Rhodes Hall in a boardroom fully outfitted with presentation technology, an impressive feat given the difficulty of pinning down faculty with significantly different schedules. When we sat down with the group, Dr. Park was running late after just returning home from a conference, and Dr. Heikenfeld had to leave early to make another meeting. Let’s be honest: that’s another manic Monday in academia, one that we all recognize. But this group of collaborators also understands the importance of regular sit-downs to discuss their individual and collective progress.

In between monthly meetings, the team utilizes strong systems of communication and collaboration. Although Esfandiari is in charge of most of the administrative functions of the group, she acknowledges that everyone has a role in making sure communication is frequent and efficient. “We use Basecamp where we can post articles or tasks for each member. Students and post-docs, they can go on there and check their tasks, see which ones are due, and tell everyone when they’re completed.”

Basecamp is a collaboration tool Heikenfeld uses regularly after being introduced to it by The College-Conservatory of Music Dean, Peter Landgren, for use with the most recent Provost search. The team also uses other professional collaboration tools like Doodle and Blackboard, and of course the most common and convenient tool, UCMail.

Measuring success
The members of the skin science team share a vision of success that includes both individual and collective achievement. “This project is a pilot project,” explains Dr. Kasting. To that end, success for the team is more than just a sensor that works. Kasting continues, “One success would be a piece of technology that we can take forward, a sensor that can extract biomarkers through skin by electro-osmosis, which is more convenient than other techniques where you need collect biofluids (blood, sweat, tears, or urine). The other thing that is big for us is we have two assistant professors that have just started out, and we want to see them succeed.”

Assistant professors Dr. Yoonjee Park and Dr. Leyla Esfandiari at work in the Integrative Biosensing Lab in the ERC

But even the two assistant professors are primarily concerned with success beyond their own individual achievement, a characteristic that is essential to the functioning of any highly integrative team. Esfandiari noted, “If we can use this project to apply for more external research dollars and maybe even get other attention from scientists across the world about this research project, that would be a success.”

Anticipating future needs

After establishing a vision for the scope of the project, the group acknowledges that it is important not to lose sight of that vision. While they have the wealth of expertise needed for the current stage of work, they know the time will come when they need to bring in other team members with different skill sets.

“Right now, we are very focused on a couple of core tasks,” Heikenfeld explains, “But let’s say we start to get a lot of data. Well, we’re going to need medical informatics, computer science type folks to come in.” Anticipating that need, they have already reached out to bioinformatics experts locally in engineering and from the medical school that have, in turn, expressed interest in joining the project when the need arises.

The skin science team, with their commitment to innovation, sophisticated collaborative toolkit, shared vision for success and forward-thinking mindset, exhibit many of the ideals laid out by the NIH in their field guide to “Team Science.” Because of their ability to efficiently and effectively conduct an integrative research design, the skin science team demonstrates a high probability of success.

The Office of Research would like to extend its gratitude to the members of the skin science team for their time, and willingness to share their experiences with others. For more information about resources and opportunities related to cross-disciplinary team research at UC, visit the Office of Research’s website or contact Phil Taylor, Assistant Vice-President for Research – Strategic Implementation.

Related Publications

  • Sonner Z, Wilder E, Heikenfeld J, Kasting G, Beyette F, Swaile D, Sherman F, Joyce J, Hagen J, Kelly-Loughnane N, Naik R 2015. The microfluidics of the eccrine sweat gland, including biomarker partitioning, transport and biosensing implications. Biomicrofluidics 9:031301 031301-031319

  • Barai ND, Supp AP, Kasting GB, Visscher MO, Boyce ST 2007. Improvement of epidermal barrier properties in cultured skin substitutes after grafting onto athymic mice. Skin Pharmacol Physiol 20:21-28.

  • Barai ND, Boyce ST, Hoath SB, Visscher MO, Kasting GB 2006. Improved barrier function observed in cultured skin substitutes developed under anchored conditions. Skin Res Technol 12:1-7