May 07 2018

Meet Mailman’s New Scientific Matchmaker

The incoming Vice Dean for Research Strategy and Innovation, Gary Miller believes interdisciplinary research collaborations are greater than the sum of their parts.

Global climate change, population aging, pollution, obesity, chronic disease: today’s public health challenges are larger and more complex than ever. To make headway on problems like these, it has become increasingly necessary to marshal expertise from multiple disciplines in a united effort.

A longtime advocate for this strategy, Gary Miller, the new Vice Dean for Research Strategy and Innovation, arrives with a mandate to build a culture of collaboration at the Mailman School. When he starts in August, Miller will oversee the School’s research mission, supporting faculty from concept to successful funding to impact. While small research projects will continue to have a place, he will work with the School’s scientists to identify avenues to scale-up their ambitions, connecting them with counterparts in other departments and fields.

“Answering the biggest public health questions requires that we work together in large teams, drawing on expertise across multiple domains,” says Miller, an environmental health scientist. “As much as interdisciplinary collaborations have become indispensable, they don’t always happen naturally—and take plenty of support.”

Miller, the former Associate Dean for Research at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, says there are several considerations when it comes to making team science effective: scientific, practical, even psychological. Researchers are trained to think about problems in a reductive fashion; their instinct is to simplify, not to embrace complexity. Another hurdle is language. Scientific terminology differs from field to field; engineers might not always understand epidemiologists and vice versa. Finally, participants need to feel they are getting appropriate credit for their contributions—for example, deciding who gets to be first author on a paper.

There is no single formula for overcoming these obstacles, according to Miller. Each project takes a degree of finesse—whether providing the vision for a collaboration, serving as a bridge between terminologies, or negotiating ways to share credit.

“It’s like scientific matchmaking,” he says. “You bring people together who are compatible, even though they’re in different domains and have different personalities. If you have a major public health problem, you have to figure it out. It’s necessary to be creative.”

Collaboration in Action

As the director of two interdisciplinary centers funded by National Institutes of Health, Miller leads and coordinates team members from over 20 different academic departments across four schools and two universities. He has also served as an advisor for several large projects in the European Union that include investigators from dozens of countries and institutions. In recent years, he has been a leading voice for the concept of the exposome, the environmental equivalent of the human genome, defined as the cumulative measure of environmental influences and associated biological responses throughout the lifespan. This research demands a high degree of interdisciplinary collaboration. He has worked with engineers, biochemists, system biologists, and clinicians to develop animal models in mice and C. elegans worms to understand the impact of multiple low-level chemical exposures on brain circuitry. 

“Throughout my career, I have always sought out problems that were beyond my own capabilities,” he says. “Since I couldn’t solve the problems on my own I had to seek out colleagues who had the skills and interest to help with the solutions. Whether it be a small group of students or technicians or a large multi-investigator center, I have always considered science to be a team-based activity.”

A Startup Environment

Despite the obstacles to multidisciplinary science, the funding climate has never been better. In recent years, alongside the traditional R01 grants for individual researchers, the National Institutes of Health has added P and U series grants to support larger projects, which often involve scientists from different fields. The Mailman School already has several of these grants, which help fund work by the Center for Infection and Immunity, the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health and the NIEHS Center for Environmental Health in Northern Manhattan.

Miller believes there are opportunities for more of these projects—not only is the School brimming with scientific talent, but its researchers are primed for collaboration.  In his assessment, the Mailman School, while one of the nation’s oldest public health schools, exhibits the atmosphere of a startup.

“I’ve been struck by the level of enthusiasm and willingness to try new things and be daring,” he says. “There is a sense of urgency. People here want to do something important because there are so many important public health problems to solve.”