Exploring the Impact of Collaborative, Interdisciplinary Research Through Bass Connections
In 2013, the first Bass Connections research teams embarked on ambitious projects to tackle real-world challenges ranging from gender inequality in STEM education to children’s mental health to climate policy in the U.S. to rural poverty. Since then, the program has supported nearly 500 interdisciplinary teams and brought together more than 4,000 faculty, students and staff to conduct cutting-edge research spanning dozens of disciplinary fields and world regions.
In Spring 2022, the program’s innovative model and wide-ranging impacts were featured on Methodspace, an online research community focused on sharing groundbreaking research methods and programs. Highlighting the ways in which Bass Connections has enabled research that “crosses boundaries,” this series of essays, interviews and testimonials from faculty, staff and students associated with the program demonstrates the exciting array of outcomes produced by the program across its first nine years, including shaping student trajectories, opening new avenues for faculty research and enabling deeper partnerships in the community.
Explore this series and check out some highlights below!
Shaping Student Trajectories
“We have found that collaborative, project-based research teams allow undergraduates to explore and deepen their academic interests, form influential new mentoring relationships and develop a range of career-relevant skills. For graduate students, the program provides an opportunity to develop critical experience with complex organization, teamwork and leadership. –Program leaders Edward Balleisen (Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies) and Laura Howes (Director, Bass Connections)
In this video, Catherine Grodensky ’25 (Ph.D. in Public Policy), Matthew Ralph ’22 (Statistical Science and Political Science) and Sahil Sandhu ’20 (Program II), speak to Janet Salmons (Methodspace) about their Bass Connections experience.
For many students, Bass Connections has been an excellent avenue through which to explore new research fields, consider future career interests and conduct research with real-world impacts.
For example, in 2018, Kathleen Burns ’22 (Ph.D. in English) joined the Decisions on Complex Interdisciplinary Problems of Health and Environmental Risk (DECIPHER) team, which brought together faculty and students from law, science, public policy and the humanities to study the history of ozone-depleting chemicals in terms of risk and decision-making. Burns ended up spending multiple years on the team working her way from student researcher to coleader.
“While I wielded little knowledge of atmospheric chemistry as an English grad student, the interdisciplinary spirit of the project piqued my interest ... If anything, my year learning about ozone depletion has helped shape the topic of my dissertation project more than any other single source at Duke. It revolutionized the way I think about risk, weather, climate – even air conditioning!” –Kathleen Burns, graduate member of the DECIPHER team
For Sarah Diringer ’16 (Ph.D. in Civil & Environmental Engineering), being on a Bass Connections team helped her recognize the importance of diverse and collaborative teams and strong community partnerships in accomplishing big research goals. Her work on a team studying heavy metal exposure and emerging infectious diseases in the Peruvian Amazon informed her dissertation project as well as her future career path. She now serves as the Water Program Officer at the Pisces Foundation.
“While I started my career focused narrowly on water systems, working with Bass Connections and the Duke Global Health Institute teams helped me see water as part of an intricate web of people and the environment. One of the most worthwhile parts of my graduate school experience was conducting research in partnership with communities living in Madre de Dios, Peru. From my first trip to the field, it was clear how much we had to learn about the river from communities living on its banks.” –Sarah Diringer, graduate member of the Environmental Epidemiology Research Training in the Peruvian Amazon team
In this video, Bill Pan and members of the multiyear Environmental Epidemiology in Latin America team describe their research on chemical exposure and public health in the Peruvian Amazon.
For other students, Bass Connections has provided opportunities to examine the creation, implementation and analysis of policy decisions at the local and national levels.
For example, recent graduates Sophie Hurewitz ’22 (Neuroscience) and Ainsley Buck ’22 (Neuroscience), spent three years as members of the North Carolina Early Childhood Action Plan team, where they explored and assessed policy designed to improve the developmental and behavioral health of children. Based on their findings, team members drafted community and policy recommendations to the Integrated Care for Kids model, including strengthening both screening processes and referral mechanisms associated with food insecurity and continuing to focus on outreach to historically marginalized populations.
“My involvement with Bass Connections has inspired me to pursue my interests in child and family policy, health policy and educational policy alongside a medical degree” –Sophie Hurewitz, undergraduate member of the North Carolina Early Childhood Action Plan team
Bass Connections projects also expose students to the uncertainties of open-ended research questions and help them cultivate creativity and resilience in the face of individual and group obstacles.
“Things often don’t go as planned in a research team. In [Bass Connections], students are dealing with IRB [Institutional Review Board] for the first time, or working with new team dynamics. All these things are highly applicable to the real world, both for graduate school and after you graduate.” –Sahil Sandhu, undergraduate cofounder and member of the Help Desk team
In addition to helping students develop sought-after research skills and competencies, project teams also lead to applied research outputs, including academic publications, grant proposals, policy reports and briefs, archives, oral history collections, databases, software programs and apps, new models of social service provision and even art exhibits.
For example, students on the Arts and the Anthropocene team, which explored research questions at the intersection of ocean science and the arts, developed two StoryMaps to explain and illuminate the science of sea level rise and local impacts of sea level rise in North Carolina and created Spectral Seas, an art installation depicting the scale of future sea level rise. Woven out of over 400 plastic bags collected from the Durham community, the tapestry features layers of color representing different sea level rise predictions for 2100 and was installed at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art. In the future, this installation will travel to museums and community arts sites across North Carolina.
Opening New Avenues of Research for Faculty
For example, several engineering professors have organized teams to focus on the challenges of moving technical innovations into use, with some students working on regulatory issues and others on the development of business models. Environmental scientists have built teams that investigate how to use a new technology, like drones, to reshape techniques for monitoring environmental conditions in ecologically fragile or tough-to-reach areas. In the arts and humanities, teams have enabled professors to pursue large-scale digital projects, build oral history collections or mount ambitious public exhibits.
In this video, Janet Bettger (Associate Professor of Orthopaedics), Manoj Mohanan (Associate Professor of Public Policy) and Charlotte Sussman (Professor of English) speak to Janet Salmons (Methodspace) about their Bass Connections experience.
Prior to leading a Bass Connections team examining the global financial crisis, Joseph A. Smith (senior fellow at Duke Law) was North Carolina’s Commissioner of Banks. He brought his professional and academic expertise as well as an insider’s perspective to his team’s research goals.
“[This] project allowed me to reflect on the predatory lending debate with the benefit of historical perspective. More importantly, it has allowed me to view the period under study through the eyes of a group of extraordinary young people. I have been especially impressed by key dimensions of the research that the students have undertaken. Our oral history subteams have conducted over 80 interviews with participants in the predatory lending debates from all sides of the issue: advocates, government officials and mortgage industry folks. The interviews have been conducted under university protocols and are always preceded by careful background research and preparation.” –Joseph A. Smith, coleader of the American Predatory Lending and the Global Financial Crisis team
For Emily Bernhardt (James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Biology), Bass Connections served as a gateway to an entirely new research effort for herself and her lab. As the coleader of a multiyear project team studying the impacts of small-scale gold mining on communities and the environment in the Peruvian Amazon, Bernhardt and her team applied tools in biogeochemistry and ecosystem science to an under-researched problem of the Anthropocene. Ultimately, their research has had a tangible impact on the science and policy arena surrounding an important issues at the interface of health and the environment.
“We are already generating vitally important information to guide management and policy—we are providing the first ever measures of soil and water methyl mercury in Peru—and we are poised to provide far more. [As a result of Bass Connections], we expect to generate several high-profile papers and to have sufficient information to go after a much larger grant to continue and expand upon this research on [mercury] pollution associated with artisanal gold mining in one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots – Peru’s Madre de Dios river” –Emily Bernhardt, coleader of the Impacts of Artisanal Gold Mining in the Peruvian Amazon on Aquatic Ecosystem Biodiversity team
Lavanya Vasudevan (Assistant Professor of Community and Family Medicine) also noted that her Bass Connections project opened up new research opportunities in her field. In 2015-16, Vasudevan led a project team that analyzed the uptake of routine childhood vaccination services in Kumasi, Ghana and Roatán, Honduras. Team members traveled to both sites to assess the attitudes and practices affecting vaccine uptake as well as mobile phone ownership and use.
“For me, the best part about the experience has been the new connections – with students, faculty and community partners, with whom I would otherwise not have had the opportunity to interact. The influx of new ideas and perspectives has been enriching, and it is very exciting to consider the new avenues of research that have opened up as a result” —Lavanya Vasudevan, coleader of the mHealth for Better Routine Immunization Data in Honduras team
Erik Wibbels (Robert O. Keohane Professor of Political Science), a leader of a multi-year project team that studied slums in urban India, cited Bass Connections as “the single most significant programmatic innovation during his 13 years at Duke and 21 years as an academic.”
“I consider Bass Connections to be an exemplar of where both research and teaching are headed – towards collaborative, interdisciplinary applied learning. Leveraging the huge research opportunities this movement portends does require faculty to rethink how they work and teach, but when we do so, there is a lot of fun and productivity to be had” –Erik Wibbels, coleader of the Studying the Real Slums in Bangalore, Patna and Jaipur and Migration and Deportation among Guatemalans in the U.S. and Guatemala teams
In this video, undergraduate team members Sarah Zimmermann and Nancy Zhu share their experience on the Real Slums in Bangalore, Patna and Jaipur project team.
Strengthening the Foundations of Team Research
Through annual program evaluations, Bass Connections has accrued a rich set of data that has been used to help set teams up for future success. The program has also drawn on the strength and guidance of its faculty team leaders to share important practices that help make team research both productive and fun.
For example, after serving for many as a team leader and chair of the Bass Connections Faculty Advisory Council, Erik Wibbels shared several important practices that have been crucial to team success, including selecting team members with diverse skillsets, setting clear expectations for student effort from the project’s outset and leveraging the social nature of teamwork through regular, engaging team meetings.
“Selecting a team requires careful attention to the diverse skills that make such teams work,” he noted. While a team leader’s tendency may be to simply select team members who have the strongest academic records, those with the highest GPAs or best technical training might not be the right group for a team’s unique goals.
He also noted that each project should include at least one participant who is skilled in overseeing logistics, including what may be seen as unglamorous or quotidian tasks, like taking meeting notes, organizing team travel and ensuring that the faculty are providing clear week-to-week assignments for each student.
Wibbels also emphasized the importance of managing student effort with clear, regular communication. “Unsurprisingly, projects work better when they begin with clear end goals and when the students appreciate the importance of achieving those goals. Students need to have a clear assignment each week that emerges from team-wide effort and faculty-led focus on the baby steps that will get the overall team to a productive end product.”
Finally, Wibbels explained that it is important to recognize that teamwork is an inherently social venture that should include regular group interaction. “Regular meetings provide an opportunity to assess individual efforts, integrate everyone’s work into a broader vision, and ensure that each participant has a clear deliverable to work on for the following week.”
Echoing Wibbel’s advice, Edward Balleisen and Laura Howes also shared five pillars that make up the foundation of every successful interdisciplinary research project.
- Cultivate a strong team structure and culture: Teams are complex. Building an effective team requires intentionality. Teams struggle when they neglect to build social bonds, or fail to set clear goals, roles and timelines. We encourage our teams to dedicate time to team building activities, set team ground rules, and use a team charter to get all members of the team on the same page about project goals, individual responsibilities, key resources and timelines.
- Expect initiative but provide scaffolding: Expecting students to take ownership and initiative will empower them to contribute, but given their lack of experience with ambiguous, open-ended inquiry, they will initially need some scaffolding in the form of smaller starter projects and ample mentoring.
- Create mentorship and leadership opportunities for advanced students: On our teams graduate students (and sometimes postdocs or advanced undergraduate students) often serve as sub-team leads, technical mentors or project managers (helping address team culture and structure as noted above!). Elevating advanced students gives them appropriate challenges, while also providing undergraduate students with an accessible resource, and reducing the load of faculty leaders.
- Engage with clients and partners: While all of our project teams are applied (in that they relate to a real-world issue), just about two-thirds of teams have an external client or partner. These external relationships foster translation of research findings, while also helping students develop new networks and the ability to apply their studies to a concrete setting.
- Create opportunities for reflection: We encourage all of our teams to deploy regular reflection as a tool for helping students think critically about their team experience. We also suggest that teams use reflection as one mechanism for grading team-based research.
Scaling the Model in Higher Education
In light of the positive impacts documented for the students and faculty participating in the Bass Connections program, there is a strong case for colleges and universities to explore how they might borrow this approach to blending interdisciplinary research, education, and civic engagement. With that forecast in view, Edward Balleisen noted opportunities to link support for interdisciplinary student teams to external funding proposals, as well as university-based curricular structures.
He also noted that faculty and students do not need to venture far to find compelling research questions. “Every brick and mortar institution of higher education can draw on the issues confronting their own towns, cities and regions, and so foster community-engaged inquiry without incurring extensive travel costs.”
For example, the long-running Mental Health and the Justice System in Durham County team has partnered with the Sheriff’s office, detention center and local criminal justice and community health organizations to improve the interaction between the criminal justice system and people with mental illness and substance use disorders. By combining health and detention center data, the team has mapped the strong connection between mental health disorders, arrests and recidivism. Their work has resulted in publications, policy proposals and extensive changes in practice within the Durham county justice system.
In this video, Nicole Schramm-Sapyta (Associate Professor of the Practice in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences), coleader of the Mental Health and the Justice System in Durham County team, shares the team’s research findings and long-running partnerships with the health and criminal justice communities in Durham County.
Additionally, the rapid expansion of IT infrastructure to facilitate remote interaction can also be a means of linking student research teams across space. For example, drawing on these strategies, Bass Connections has had teams work with faculty and students at universities as far away as Brazil, Uganda and China.
Balleisen noted that “with careful planning and a willingness to reimagine curricular structures ... colleges and universities can bring research-inflected, team-based education to large numbers of their students ... Such a move would depend on a wider recognition that such experiences complement more traditional frameworks of instruction, and that they effectively prepare students to work in diverse teams, conceptualize truly wicked problems, and engage them through creative, interdisciplinary inquiry.”
Browse the Full Methodspace Series by Topic
The Bass Connections Model
- Interdisciplinary, Collaborative Research: Solving Today’s Challenges While Equipping Future Leaders
- Interdisciplinary Faculty-Student Research
Applying and Scaling the Model in Higher Education
- Research Methods and Creative Outputs From Interdisciplinary Teams
- Innovating the Summer Internship: Interdisciplinary Team-Based Humanities Research
- Scaling Interdisciplinary, Collaborative Research Within Higher Education
- Learning to Put Research Into Practice
Student Impact and Stories
- Student Perspectives: The Impact of Interdisciplinary, Collaborative Research Opportunities on Student Development
- Students Share Interdisciplinary Research Experiences
- Years After Graduating, I Still Rely on Skills Gained from Interdisciplinary Research
Faculty Impact and Insights on Leading Interdisciplinary Research Teams
- Faculty Perspectives: The Impact of Interdisciplinary, Collaborative Research Opportunities on Scholarly Trajectories
- Interdisciplinary Researchers Discuss Faculty-Student Research
- A Practitioner’s View on the Value of Team-Based, Student-Powered Interdisciplinary Research
- Learning by Doing: Building Cross-Disciplinary, Intergenerational Research Teams