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Building and Evaluating an Interdisciplinary Team in Oncofertility

Over the past decade, federal funding has played a key role in encouraging the advancement of interdisciplinary team science. The 2007 Roadmap for Medical Research Initiative, which was created by the National Institutes of Health, is one such example. The Initiative was designed to bring diverse experts together to solve extremely challenging public health problems, from obesity to mental illness. The Initiative launched a number of programs, including the Oncofertility Consortium (oncofertility.northwestern.edu). The Consortium is an interdisciplinary team of researchers and clinicians created with the goal to expand the reproductive future of young cancer survivors through advanced research and improved clinical care. Given that 10% of cancer patients are diagnosed during or before their reproductive years and that survivorship rates exceed 80%, fertility is a significant survivorship consideration for the 135,000 patients under age 45 who are diagnosed each year and for their families. The subfield of oncofertility (at the intersection of oncology and reproductive medicine) was launched with federal financial support, and the participation of scientists, clinicians, social scientists, humanities scholars, and others to address this issue.

Graphic representation of the increase in annual hits for four popular oncofertility websites between 2007 and 2011.

Under the Roadmap grant, the Oncofertility Consortium team was founded under a series of funding mechanisms awarded to principle investigators across multiple disciplines and institutions in the United States. An important initial and continuing task for the group was to break down the language barriers that often make it challenging for experts in diverse disciplines to communicate with each other. The group addresses this challenge through frequent, bidirectional communication, which began with the first Oncofertility Conference in 2007. During the first Oncofertility Conference, speakers clearly explained their research interests using minimal jargon and encouraged inquiries from across disciplines. This process continues today in a multitude of ways. First, a growing number of oncofertility professionals convene at the annual in-person meeting of the Consortium for formal education and informal networking. Second, monthly virtual laboratory meetings of investigators across the country are facilitated through the Vidyo videoconferencing system, which allows real-time audio and video communication and sharing high-resolution data slides. These frequent “face-to-face” meetings are designed to speed the pace of research through discussions of emerging research and research dilemmas. Equally important, the discussions provide an interdisciplinary perspective that may help inform efforts to tackle research challenges, and foster interdisciplinary collaborations. Additionally, clinician engagement is emphasized through quarterly Virtual Grand Rounds presentations that provide external experts in the oncofertility field with the opportunity to communicate recent advances in research that are ready for incorporation into clinical care with the larger cancer and fertility community across the globe. Using Adobe Connect (San Jose, CA) technology, a single presenter broadcasts video and data slides and viewers ask text-based questions that can be answered in real-time. More than 40 people typically join these virtual meetings and an additional 400 people per year view video archives of the Rounds. Communication to the larger community is also emphasized through social media and frequent blog posts written by scientists, advocates, and other oncofertility professionals to inform an audience of researchers, clinicians, and the public. Through this deliberate process that focuses on enhancing communication, the Consortium formed a common vocabulary that allows the team to effectively identify research questions, foster an inclusive intellectual environment, and rapidly disseminate research results across disciplines. The end goal of all these efforts is to improve clinical outcomes for patients.

The evaluation efforts of the Oncofertility Consortium aim at identifying research, clinical, communication, and team science metrics and understanding the value of this interdisciplinary effort in the oncofertility context. Such metrics include the quality and frequency of publications, website visits over time, and clinical data such as patient consultations and fertility preservation services provided to patients. Furthermore, the Consortium administration works with an evaluation team to better understand the role of these efforts in the larger team science context. As part of the evaluation team, researchers from the Science of Networks in Communities (SONIC) Research Group, located in Northwestern University’s Evanston Campus (http://sonic.northwestern.edu/) worked together with the Oncofertility Consortium leadership to develop a conceptual model and evaluate the role that the Consortium plays in shaping the emergence of the oncofertility research community. These scholars have developed a sophisticated survey data collection and visual-analytic tool called OncoIKNOW to assess the impact of the Oncofertility Consortium on the growth and propagation of interdisciplinary research and collaborations regarding oncofertility issues. OncoIKNOW was implemented in years 1, 3, and 5 of the grant.

The results of the surveys show that participants join the Oncofertility Consortium because they want to interact with experts across disciplines, such as clinical care, oncology, reproductive medicine, social sciences or humanities. As a new interdisciplinary subfield, oncofertility calls for specialization as well as integration of expertise. As such, interdisciplinary collaboration is essential. To this end, SONIC scholars assessed the collaboration mechanisms among scientists in the oncofertility subfield. In their research, they used all academic articles with the terms (1) “oncofertility”, or (2) “cancer” and “ovarian tissue cryopreservation”, or (3) “cancer” and “fertility preservation” that were indexed in the Web of Science, Pubmed, and NIH Reporter databases. The results showed that between 1993 (when the first article referring to oncofertility issues was published) and 2010 more than 1,700 scientists have collaborated on 640 published scholarly articles. Interestingly, the number of scholarly articles and authors in the oncofertility subfield have both increased significantly starting 2007, when the Oncofertility Consortium was formed, indicating the potential impact of the Oncofertility Consortium on the development of this subfield.

Number of oncofertility publications by year Number of authors in oncofertility by year

A longitudinal analysis (1993-2010) that explored how scientists collaborate to publish in the oncofertility subfield found some interesting patterns related to how the subfield is growing. Scientists who are newcomers to the field are more likely to collaborate with other newcomers, while scientists who have previously published in the field are more likely to engage in repeat collaborations. The Oncofertility Consortium offers an environment in which scientists from different domains and with different levels of experience can interact and collaborate, which may help to foster collaborations among newcomers, and stimulate collaborations among newcomers and more established scientists in the field.

As a forum where researchers from different disciplines are encouraged to interact and work together, the Oncofertility Consortium provides a fertile ground for new scientific discovery by interdisciplinary teams. In the experience of the Oncofertility Consortium, the keys to the growth of interdisciplinary team science have been a constant effort to foster collaboration and simultaneous evaluation of the emerging subfield of oncofertility. These processes engaged the team involved in scientific collaboration in oncofertility, allowed challenges to be faced, and course-corrections to be made when these were needed.

About the Authors

Kate Waimey Timmerman PhD, Program Director, Oncofertility Consortium, Northwestern University
Alina Lungeanu, Doctoral Student, Technology and Social Behavior program, Northwestern University

References

Science of Networks in Communities (SONIC) Laboratory. (2011). C-IKNOW: Cyber-infrastructure for Inquiring Knowledge Networks on the Web [http://ciknow.northwestern.edu] (Computer software and manual).

Hall, KL, Feng, AX, Moser, RP, Stokols, D, & Taylor, BK. (2008). Moving the science of team science forward - Collaboration and creativity. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35(2): S243-S249.

Zhu M, Lungeanu A, Contractor NS. (2012). Team assembly in the emergence of a scientific field [Poster]. The Third Annual International Science of Team Science (SciTS) Conference, Chicago, IL.

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