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Working with Remote Laboratory Teams

Working with Remote Laboratory Teams

Face-to-face communication is still key, even at a distance

by Bernard B. Tulsi
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Teams are a vital engine of the scientific enterprise, and are widely used in advanced research laboratories, academic collaborations, and a range of service labs. Advances in communications tools have made it easier for geographically dispersed laboratories, their scientists, and other staff to pool their skills and resources to address common research questions more deeply, efficiently, and cost effectively. The art of creating and managing remote teams, however, is still being fine-tuned. What has become clear, though, is that they are indispensable.

In what could well be one of the most dramatic, if not thrilling, cases of remote teamwork, a member of the atmospheric sciences team at Sandia National Laboratories was recently aboard the icebreaker RV Polarstern, frozen in the Arctic for a year, for the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate expedition.

The team, which is headed by Lori Parrott, manager, Atmospheric Sciences at Sandia National Laboratories, supports science campaigns at very remote locations around the world. In particular, it manages research facilities in northern Alaska for the US Department of Energy Office of Science in the Biological and Environmental research program. Team members operate sophisticated instrumentation and support science campaigns at facilities on the Alaska North Slope, according to Parrott. She says, “These instruments must operate and provide data 365 days a year to provide robust, longitudinal data sets for climate researchers around the world.”

“In the data-sparse Arctic, having continuous and high-quality data for scientists to use in understanding how the environment is changing is critical,” says Parrott. Elaborating on the most effective structure of these teams, she notes that remote team configurations demand coordination among scientists and engineers to bring together specialized skill sets to work with onsite support teams who are familiar with the remote local environments.

Expanding on key strategies for keeping remote team members on track, Parrot says, “Ensuring collaboration among remote teams requires a commitment to understanding the value of working across distance and institutional boundaries.” Furthermore, she says that because her team operates several remote sites, “We work to provide consistent training to all staff to share lessons, provide support, and coordinate common procedures.”

She says that consistent training helps to ensure consistency in the data provided to the science community, despite their origins in diverse locations, and facilities with different team members. Alluding to the value of interpersonal contacts, she says, “We also meet face-to-face when possible. We have a large science team meeting at least once per year.”

Publications and the number of user-days are the key metrics for gauging completed team work. “The success of our work in new areas, such as unmanned aerial systems and tethered balloon systems, has helped to pioneer the use of those capabilities at new sites with other partners,” says Parrott. “Our experience with logistics and research support in harsh, remote conditions of the Arctic has enabled us to support other programs as well,” she says.

Another important case of successful remote team collaboration is the creation of new materials for use in next generation batteries at the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR). “The whole JCESR project has been very successful because of the interactions and collaborations of the other labs that were involved. This brought in different expertise from across the nation,” says Lei Cheng, chemist, Materials Science Division, Argonne National Laboratory, which coordinates remote teams for the program, among its other responsibilities.

Related Article: Essential Communication Tools for Managing Far-Flung Teams

“The key for success with such remote efforts is that first you set up a team that actually makes sense and in which members with complimentary skill sets work toward a common goal.” For example, Cheng does computational but not experimental work. “Some of my colleagues here at Argonne help me with the experimental aspects,” she says. “But we have our limitations, so additional assistance may come from our colleagues at other labs who add different skills and capabilities to reach a common scientific goal.”

“Having the right team, with members that make sense is a good starting point,” she says. “Overlapping skill sets could lead to conflicts, and become a source of complications.

On Cheng’s own projects, she worked closely with colleagues at Berkeley Lab to develop innovative new electrolyte material. Without such collaborations, she sees two difficult scenarios: the barriers would have been too difficult to overcome or the project could have taken several years longer. “When we started the JCESR program in the first term—and in the second term as well—we have full program meetings where everybody in the program [was] brought together at the same location, spent a few days together, and built connections and relationships.”

She says those in-person meetings were important in getting to know team members as people, but even managers without that luxury can form connections through today’s technologies. “I find that meeting calls using teleconferencing software with the option to have the camera on and making a visual impression is very helpful,” Cheng says. “Email is efficient but has its drawbacks—sometimes you don’t know the person, you don’t know their tone, and the exchange could end up not as intended. Still, emails can be efficient and may be more effective than one more call or one more meeting.”

Ian Waddell, executive director, Biology, at contract research organization Charles River Labs, currently works on pre-clinical discovery including target identification and validation leading to candidate drug nomination. He says that because Charles River Labs has six early-stage discovery sites located mainly in Europe, including five biology sites, effective remote management is critical.

“I essentially look after five sites— three in Britain, one in Holland, and one in Belgium. As a result, the question of remote teamwork is very relevant for us internally, and also in the ways we interact with our clients,” Waddell says.

He adds that the skills and capabilities of the three main biology sites vary slightly. For example, the high-throughput screening group is largely at Chesterford Research Park in the United Kingdom but they have the ability to do screens in Leiden in the Netherlands. Lead identification is split roughly equally between Chesterford Park and the Harlow Facility, also in the UK.

“In terms of lead optimization, where projects get really complex, all the disciplines have to work together, and may be spread over seven or eight different sites,” Waddell says. “The key for smooth remote team collaboration, particularly from a client perspective, is to have a single project lead.” He adds that it doesn’t really matter where the work is done. “The Charles River project lead coordinates the work, regardless of the site, to help make sure that the key priorities are completed as we move the work from site to site.”

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For Waddell, there are a few main advantages to having remote teams. “The key benefit for me is accessing the right capability at the right time,” Waddell explains. “For example, if you think of a small molecule project that begins with high throughput screening activity on a given target at Chesterford Park, it will probably stay there or at Harlow. But as it moves on to become a lead optimization project, we may do some of the PK [pharmacokinetics] or PD [pharmacodynamics] or efficacy studies in the United States. For example, for oncology projects, we could be using a patient-derived xenograft in Freiberg, Germany, or, if it’s an immune-oncology project, it could be using a model in Morrisville, North Carolina.”

Again, having a clear project lead is critical to ensuring remote teams live up to their potential. “There is a huge advantage from expertise being based at different sites—as long as we have a project lead who coordinates everything and ensures that transitions are smooth and effective, not only for compounds but knowledge between sites,” Waddell explains.

For Waddell, the outcome of remote team efforts at Charles River related to integrated drug discovery is what he’s proudest of. “We are most proud that over the years we have delivered more than 80 pre-clinical candidates,” he says. “While that number in itself might not be very impressive, what is important is that they are in a wide range of therapeutic areas. The only way you can achieve that is to have key disciplines across different cooperating sites that are adapted to work across international boundaries.”

Turning to advice he would offer other lab managers about setting up remote teams, Waddell says getting team members together face-to-face is critical when starting a project. “We can use a range of video conferencing and other tools but actually getting the team face-to-face is always money well used,” he says. For its large clients, Charles River organizes joint steering committees that meet three or four times a year. “Three of them may be virtual but one will be face-to-face. This builds trust, and it’s much easier to do virtual calls when you have actually met an individual before. The key is regular contact, and this is applicable both internally and externally.”

Parrott says that managers need to pay attention to key components when setting up cross-functional teams. When managers have to select tools, she advises, “Do your homework and pick tools that solve more problems than they create. Ensure new tools fit your teams’ needs and culture.”

Considering culture is important for other reasons, she adds. “Culture fit is very important when working with different institutions and individuals,” Parrott explains. “Working with local entities who know the area and have access to local expertise and resources is vital to maintaining operations and enable optimal response to unexpected situations. To do this effectively, we must cultivate local relationships in line with the culture and social norms in those locations.”

Strong communication, trust, and shared motivation among remote team members are the key elements to making remote projects work. By considering these key points and the insight shared in this article, lab managers can ensure remote teams are a strength for their organization, rather than a weakness.