Be Effective in Leading “Big Science”


In fall 2016, my lab published two articles in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, also known as PNAS. Publishing “original research of exceptional importance,” PNAS is one of the most prestigious scientific journals. Many colleagues kindly congratulated us for the accomplishments. Some asked half-jokingly what our secret was for getting into PNAS. I did not feel we had one. When I sat down and reflected on our journeys that led to these two PNAS articles, a few thoughts came to my mind. I would like to share several of them from the leadership perspective for the sake of discussion.

A research article of high impact requires “big science.” As a leader of a big science project, one needs to create a shared vision and articulate that shared view of the future to all team members, including collaborators. Such projects often take longer time to complete than regular projects. In our case, it took more than four years to complete each of the two projects that led to PNAS articles. It had been essential to us during the course of our studies to have a shared vision among team members and collaborating teams. With everyone’s buy-in, the strength of team work is manifested.

Big science projects are often multidisciplinary in nature. Take one of our PNAS articles as an example; it had a total of twenty coauthors from thirteen research groups located in six countries. Effective communication was critical to move the entire project forward. When communicating, messages should be unambiguous. As a leader, it is also important to recognize that various team members may have different agendas and wants, so it is important that the team leader mediates potential conflicting ideas through an open and fair attitude.

Each research project takes its own course. It is normal to have drawbacks and unexpected difficulties. As a project leader, it is pivotal to stay patient. If we would have rushed to get our work out earlier for the fear of competition or other considerations, the final products would not be as complete. Consequently, the work would likely not end up in a high impact journal like PNAS. Over the period of our studies, there had been challenges, difficulties, and sometimes uncertainties. We are proud that our perseverance paid off.

Thinking back, some of the leadership skills I described were not natural to me, but were acquired. The various opportunities provided by UTIA such as the Lead21 program have been extremely helpful for strengthening my leadership skills. While time-consuming, such programs taught me both theories and practical strategies on leadership development. They made me a better researcher. In the end, I feel developing and refining leadership skills is a never-ending process in one’s professional career. I will continue to grow by learning from leadership programs as well as from colleagues (Drs. Neal Stewart and Robert Augé kindly commented on this piece during preparation), students, and collaborators alike for the purpose of effectively managing research projects.

Feng Chen