Member Spotlight: Designing a new translational research ecosystem and new research building—during a pandemic | MIT J-WEL

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Member Spotlight: Designing a new translational research ecosystem and new research building—during a pandemic

Interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation at the Open University of Catalonia

During a time of unprecedented disruption at universities due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Marta Aymerich was already undertaking the complex challenge of redesigning a university’s research ecosystem while also designing a new research building.

Vice President for Strategic Planning and Research at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC)—or the Open University of Catalonia—Marta is a physician by training and also a researcher at UOC’s eHealth Lab group. Her research specializes in public health—with a particular focus on translational research, aiming to improve the “bench-to-bedside” process through which results of the research done in the lab are directly used to treat patients.

“Although most commonly used in health sciences, translational research can be applied to many disciplines across the spectrum of the sciences and humanities,” says Marta. “It really aims at solving problems by taking into account the potential users or beneficiaries of the research.”

Marta AymerichThe pandemic, of course, introduced new challenges to the design process—and also brought substantial disruption to the traditional ways that researchers had worked. Many UOC researchers had been confined in non-optimal conditions, and scholarly conferences were cancelled. Marta and her team had to determine the most effective synchronous and asynchronous ways to ask researchers to share their ideas for the new ecosystem and the new building.

The new research ecosystem encompasses research in areas where technology converges with human and social sciences, which is where the UOC seeks to make its mark and generate societal impact. The research areas of particular interest include: network society, e-learning research, and digital health. The building design sought to reinforce this new UOC research ecosystem—providing the environment, conditions, and resources needed for conducting research.

The design team asked principal investigators about their ideas for the new building using Google Forums—incorporating a lot of images and visuals. Online focus groups with researchers from different disciplines were especially useful, as were individuals interviews with PIs. Once there were some design drawings available, there were synchronous and asynchronous online consultations.

A key component of the efforts was a focus on an open research culture, in every possible way, including open collaboration with data sharing, open educational resources, open source IT, and more. The ground floor of the new space was even designed with a lot of glass for more physical transparency, and also an open space to have seminars and share knowledge within the larger community.

“An ecosystem with an open research culture promotes working environments that foster knowledge exchange, critical thinking, and creativity,” says Marta.

The design process benefitted from perspectives from a variety of stakeholders. For example, PhD students expressed a strong need to share space and be together—regardless of their disciplines. Senior PIs, however, didn’t need to share the space often—but they did have a frequent need for rooms for hybrid meetings. Designing labs was particularly challenging, and some things needed to be changed—once the space was built—to allow for better interaction between researchers

Open University of Catalonia has been a J-WEL member since March, 2019, and has participated regularly in J-WEL events, workshops, and webinars. Marta participated in a J-WEL Connection session that she says was particularly useful, noting that Professor Ed Crawley emphasized the importance of “consensus and consultancy” when working with faculty—as well as showing them “evidence and impact.” She says that working with faculty, as well as students, researchers, and administrative staff—across different disciplines—provided a lot of valuable insights that continually advanced these ambitious efforts.

“This process is a lot like research work,” says Marta. “It’s not only from an individual—there’s a lot of teamwork.”

Photo: Marta Aymerich. Courtesy UOC_Universitat/Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.