Working with people you do not know. What a scary thought! Finding people to work with. What an even scarier thought! These are ruminations that possibly cross the minds of every budding multidisciplinary team. I (Anesa Hosein) along with four other mental health researchers and practitioners (Kieran Balloo, Farhana Ferdousi Liza, Alex Conway and Caitlin Jilbert) had to do just that; form a multidisciplinary team for a project funded by Wellcome Trust. Wellcome Trust was interested in funding multidisciplinary teams to develop digital tools for mental health researchers using secondary data through their Mental Health Data Prize. We were successful in receiving funding for our project on Supporting Mental Health Researchers in Discovering Active Ingredients in Longitudinal Datasets using Artificial Intelligence (MHR-DAIDAI) during the Discovery Phase. In this blog post, we want to explore our journey and provide insights for other mental health researchers interested in forming multidisciplinary teams.
Part 1: Finding Each Other
If it was up to me, I probably would never leave the safe haven of my education discipline and working with other education colleagues. Yes, I venture out and dabble my toes in different areas, but I am firmly rooted in education. For example, my mental health research is focused on higher education, that is student mental health. However, when an opportunity comes knocking at your door, one is more willing to explore options and get pushed out of your comfort zone. And that is what the Wellcome Mental Health Data Prize did. The call was clear; the project was intended to be multidisciplinary working with a range of experts including those from computer science, secondary data analysis, mental health and lived experience.
In 2019, I began dabbling in mental health research, particularly on student mental health and well-being which led to me working with Kieran, a fellow colleague at the University of Surrey, on an ESRC project #StudentWellLives using secondary data analysis from the cohort study, the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE), sometimes refers to as the Next Steps Study. This catapulted both of us into the world of mental health research. Both Kieran and I felt the Wellcome Mental Health Data Prize was something we wanted to explore further, as we ticked the boxes on secondary data analysis and mental health. However, we needed to find experts in computer science and lived experience.
At the University of East Anglia, Farhana was grappling with similar issues. Farhana, during her PostDoc time (2019-2021) on an ESRC project, was applying her artificial intelligence knowledge to mental health longitudinal datasets using sensitive data. She had faced numerous barriers associated with the data sharing agreements and hence most of the dataset could not be shared publicly. She was interested in the Wellcome Trust opportunity but in the list of datasets that Wellcome suggested for exploration she had no prior experience.
At this point, most researchers would look into their social and professional networks to find any person they have weak or strong ties with and invite them onto the project. This option was not available to us; our professional networks outside our disciplinary area were weak; we had limited social network capital .
The Wellcome Data Prize in Mental Health Meet and Greet organised by Social Finance helped connect professional networks. It was a surreal experience. It was professional speed dating. Instead of us having to decide whether we wanted to date a particular person, we instead had to talk to people and try and figure out who might be useful or fit the project. Thankfully, no scorecards were given!
Kieran and I were looking for someone in computer science whilst Farhana was looking for people with secondary data analysis as well as mental health lived experience. Farhana met Kieran during the Meet and Greet, and she realised that she could collaborate with him on the project. She sent him an email asking him about the possible opportunity and then Kieran introduced her to me. We still needed another person who had lived experience expertise. Luckily, Farhana knew Alex, who is the CEO of the mental health charity, Miricyl, from a previous contact and realised that he would be the perfect addition to our team to lead the lived experience co-ordination. Alex brought in Caitlin, a young person with lived experience to help in coordinating our lived experience Youth Advisory Group (YAG). This completed our team for the Discovery Phase (see Figure 1).
Hence, events like the Meet and Greet are really important in brokering relationships between professional networks.
Part 2: Finding the Language to Work Together
Navigating and learning a new language is hard. I have been trying to learn Spanish for many years and I still have not graduated to the intermediate level. What could also be difficult is speaking the same language but still not quite understanding what others are saying because they come from a different discipline. This, I imagine, is a challenge for all multidisciplinary teams, particularly, if they have not worked together before.
I remember feeling lost when I first moved from the STEM disciplines into the social sciences during my PhD. The language of the discipline and the approaches felt so alien. It was as if they were speaking an entirely different language. The discipline as Becher and Trowler had described it had its own academic tribe and territory . Words like “discourse”, “sociocultural”, and “socially constructed” were thrown around and peppered the conversation. Without the appropriate access to the disciplinary language; it was as the old adage goes “it was all Greek to me“.
However, as I became inculcated into the education discipline, I began to use the language and see the world through the social science lens. I adopted different ways of thinking and interpreting research and data. It was as the Italian filmmaker, Federico Fellini said:
A different language is a different vision of life.Frederico Fellini
This is indeed no different when working in a multidisciplinary team. We needed to find a common language. We could not stay safe in our disciplinary languages – those barriers had to be broken down. Kieran, Farhana and I had to first learn the mental health language of the Wellcome Trust. We were not accustomed to thinking about ‘active ingredients’ or ‘lived experiences’. Alex was already au fait with these ideas having been involved in Wellcome activities previously. He helped us navigate the language by providing documentation from Wellcome and helping us understand the ways that Wellcome thinks and envisions mental health and used lived experience. Both Caitlin and he then shared how lived experience can be used in research projects. This different language allowed us to think, see and vision mental health research in different ways.
However, we still needed to talk to each other about our research, and we often fell into the trap of talking about our research in our own disciplinary language. To mitigate this, we met regularly to understand each other’s research. Some of the sessions were focused on future agendas. In contrast, some sessions were spent trying to understand the capability and capacity of using the other researcher and practitioner’s expertise within the project. For example, Farhana, found it particularly, useful when Kieran spent two hours with her explaining the Next Steps dataset and how analysis can be conducted within the datasets (literally, lecturing on the Next Steps dataset and relevant analysis). I, on the hand, tried to get the team to understand the challenges that mental health researchers who are data analysts face when they need to use secondary data analysis. Farhana then explicated how artificial intelligence can be useful in developing a digital tool that can be useful for researchers to mitigate these research challenges.
What has become clear in forming this multidisciplinary team are the following pieces of advice:
- Multidisciplinary teams bring different perspectives and views on the same topic. Whilst it feels comfortable and safe to stay in the same disciplinary area, multidisciplinary teams can allow you to see a whole other vision of that research topic
- Actively build your professional networks beyond your disciplinary area even if you cannot see any immediate use as there may not always be a third-party brokering relationship when you do need to form a multidisciplinary team
- Create spaces to share disciplinary research to break out from disciplinary language and help allow each other to find a common language to speak about issues
 Rienties, B., & Hosein, A. (2020, July). Complex transitions of early career academics (ECA): A mixed method study of with whom ECA develop and maintain new networks. In Frontiers in Education (Vol. 5, p. 137). Frontiers Media SA.
 Becher, T., & Trowler, P. (2001). Academic tribes and territories. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).