Building a Virtual Research Community

How the Neurodegeneration Challenge Network creates connections to accelerate disease research

When the Neurodegeneration Challenge Network (NDCN) — one of CZI’s flagship science programs — launched a little more than two years ago, we began a deliberate experiment in science community building. We envisioned an interdisciplinary collaborative network that would bring new ideas and new people into the field of neurodegeneration, with the common goal of developing innovative strategies for the treatment and prevention of neurodegenerative diseases. It would try to shift the field from looking at neurodegenerative diseases separately to examining them collectively. It would also be virtual by design and global in reach, using collaborative software tools, convenings, and mentoring to connect researchers to one another.

“Community is a word that gets used liberally to mean a lot of different things,” said science program officer Katja Brose, PhD who leads the network. “In the NDCN, we’re trying to create a supportive environment for existing talent in the field to collaborate alongside new entrants. And we want to leverage all this talent to generate tools, data, resources, and approaches that will benefit the larger scientific community.”

As it enters its third year, the NDCN has grown to include more than 600 researchers — 108 principal investigators and 568 students, postdocs and research scientists — and the collaborative network we imagined is taking shape. It feels like the right time to share some of the elements we think are contributing to its success, with the hope that they hold valuable lessons for other aspiring research communities.

Virtual by design

The NDCN has always been a virtual network, linking together labs around the world. But bringing a virtual network to life and ensuring it thrives isn’t easy. It requires deliberate planning and action.

To create a network that really starts to feel like a community, “you have to build a foundation, something that the Network does collectively on a monthly basis,” said Margaret Sutherland, PhD, the NDCN’s program manager. “We try to create regular touch points for investigators, or between investigators — opportunities to engage with other researchers and move their research forward.”

Those touch points include monthly webinars where NDCN researchers can share their progress, build collaborations, and learn from scientists who have trail blazed the study of neurodegeneration. That exposure is particularly important given the unusual makeup of the network: More than half of NDCN grantees haven’t studied neurodegenerative diseases before and have recently reoriented their research.

A monthly newsletter and Slack channels keep the NDCN community connected and informed of Network opportunities. With a key goal of the NDCN being to encourage collaboration and sharing of tools, we developed the NDCN Forum — a website where researchers can explore a directory of resources, data, tools, and expertise available to the Network, where they can find recordings of webinars and trainings, and where they can join discussion threads on science and the business of doing science. Brose also holds publishing office hours where anyone in the network can draw on her expertise as a former journal editor.

The collective knowledge of the researchers in NDCN is one of the greatest assets of the Network. To leverage this experience, we’ve created a number of investigator-led Resource Working Groups. These Working Groups are chaired by NDCN grantees and focused on identifying and developing promising research tools, including single-cell and CRISPR gene-editing technologies and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

“Some of these tools have a ton of promise but need a little bit of a boost to get them over the edge where they can be widely adopted by many more groups,” said Michael Ward, PhD, a Collaborative Pairs investigator who chairs an NDCN working group on iPSCs and gene editing. The group meets every two weeks to strategize about how to build better iPSC tools and make them more accessible to the community, an effort that is aligned with a broader initiative funded by the National Institutes of Health to engineer hundreds of iPSC cell lines as an open resource for researchers everywhere. NDCN grantees have helped to prioritize and test some of those new cell lines.

“It’s been unique to be part of a focused working group that has actually moved the field forward relatively quickly,” Ward said.

As a part of these efforts, NDCN has been working closely with protocols.io and Addgene to develop neurodegeneration community resources on their websites.

In 2020, we experimented with taking NDCN events virtual, including our annual meeting and a kick-off of the NDCN’s Collaborative Pairs Pilot Projects — 30 pairs of researchers taking bold steps to unravel the basic science of neurodegenerative diseases. The annual meeting had already been scheduled, so we shifted our plans and redesigned the event to deliver the best parts of a traditional scientific conference, while also taking advantage of technology to increase community engagement.

The results surpassed our expectations and have changed the way we think about our programming. Moving the meeting online allowed us to engage more participants, including more graduate students and postdocs, and pilot new formats and socializing tools. “Virtual meetings don’t have to be routine and lackluster. They can be engaging and innovative, which is what we strived for at the NDCN’s annual meeting,” said Andréa Clavijo, Event Planner for Science. “Hosting the meeting virtually allowed people across many different time zones and roles to attend, contributing to the success of future collaborations.”

Group photo from the 2020 NDCN Annual Meeting.

Being virtual by design has also, in some small but significant ways, helped the NDCN members cope and adapt to the new realities of conducting research during the pandemic. The community has remained a constant for members, a place where they can turn for peer support and advice on managing a lab or a career through unprecedented challenges. At a time when a traditional “day in the life” of a scientist has profoundly changed, NDCN researchers continue to tap the network for resources, mentorship, collaborations, and inspiration.

“The NCDN offered a lot of resources that we could use to try to be as productive as possible during the lockdown,” said Cortina Chen, a postdoc in the lab of Florian Merkle, a CZI Ben Barres Early Career Investigator studying shared mechanisms between metabolic and neurodegenerative diseases.

Next-generation neuroscience

From the outset, the NDCN welcomed students, postdoctoral fellows, and research scientists alongside principal investigators. Researchers at all career levels join our meetings, participate in our virtual forum, and help shape — and lead — the NDCN’s activities.

In 2020, we launched NDCN Community Projects in support of our mission to attract new ideas and new people to the field, and as a way of extending the NDCN community to our grantees’ local institutions. The projects also put trainees in the driver’s seat, providing the kinds of leadership opportunities that are essential to a successful research career.

At 12 research institutions in the United States and Europe, graduate students and postdocs are building local neurodegeneration research communities. With funding from CZI, they are planning seminar series, mini-symposia, book clubs, and other events to bring together scientists with a shared interest.

“This program resonates deeply with me because of how similar leadership opportunities influenced my career,” said Arne Bakker, PhD, Director of Meetings and Community for Science and manager of the Community Projects. Bakker trained as an immunologist before transitioning to career development in science. “These leadership opportunities play an important role in helping trainees get clarity around what’s next for them.”

Neuroscience postdocs at Washington University in St. Louis planned a workshop on the application of machine learning tools to “omics”; a group based in North Carolina’s research triangle held a series of bench-to-bedside lectures that included patient advocates; and trainees in Cambridge, England, launched a series of events for researchers from a handful of Cambridge-based departments and institutes, as well as AstraZeneca, that culminated in a symposium for early-career researchers.

The Community Projects “provide a platform and opportunity for younger scientists to share their work and gain feedback from a wider audience,” said postdoc Cortina Chen, who is co-leading the local network at the University of Cambridge. “This is where CZI’s support really helps!”

11 student-led projects are bringing together neurodegeneration researchers in 11 communities in the United States and Europe.

While the pandemic has forced some teams to take their events online — and in some cases, readjust their ambitions — the results have been encouraging. The NDCN plans to continue the Community Projects program in 2021.

Community needs

Over the past two years, we’ve learned it is especially important to listen to our researchers. When asked what they needed to accelerate their work, the answer was clear: computational training.

As the volume and complexity of data in biological research increases, researchers at all career levels are grappling with how to manage all aspects, from design to analysis to interpretation. Computational approaches are also evolving quickly, and training hasn’t necessarily kept pace.

To address this gap, we piloted weekly computational biology office hours and offered a mix of practical training sessions and hackathons, as well as drop-in sessions focused on solving specific data science problems or sharing solutions. Topics included introductions to programming languages like Python and R and common data science tools like Jupyter Notebooks and Github, and best practices for data sharing and reproducible research.

“There are a lot of e-books and online training opportunities for computational biology, but it can be hard to find one that meets your specific needs,” said Julia Lowndes, who launched the pilot. “And in some cases, researchers have trouble articulating those needs in the first place.” Computational biology training modules are now be hosted on the NDCN Forum, where they can be accessed anytime.

At a recent hackathon, NDCN researchers worked together on scripts to solve a common workflow problem.

The office hours and hackathons have enabled the kind of peer-to-peer learning that is now so difficult within a research lab or institute. For example, during a series of hackathons, NDCN researchers worked together on common problems such as optimizing file management.

Carmen Saltó, MD, PhD, is a senior researcher in Ernest Arenas’ group at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. When the pandemic struck and the lab was temporarily closed, she turned to the NDCN’s computational training to augment her skills. She soon identified a common problem in the lab that could be solved using computational tools. Through a series of hackathons, Oliver Tam, PhD, a research scientist in Molly Hammell’s group at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, worked closely with Saltó and her colleagues to make it easier to name, organize, and exchange large numbers of imaging files. Solving this problem was important for the Arenas lab, but it also has the potential to enable data sharing with other groups, potentially reducing the redundancy and enhancing reproducibility of their work.

Saltó said the hackathons demonstrated how computational tools could be used in a concrete way and have prompted the Arenas team to apply computational tools to other problems.

“Our expertise lies in other areas like cell culture, cell biology and development, but we need to adopt these new tools and learn fast,” she said. “The training has been fantastic.”

The collaboration between the Hammell and Arenas labs is just one example of how researchers have come together through the NDCN to solve a common problem, but it embodies the thriving virtual research community we’re building, one connection at a time.

Learn more about the work of the Neurodegeneration Challenge Network.

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