Lemons to Lemonade: At UA-TRIPODS+X Workshop Researchers Share Valuable Lessons from Failures

Science, like life, is a process of trial and error. In fact, one could argue that science depends upon error, often relying upon the process of elimination in the constant quest for new discoveries.

This is the premise of the Lemon Labs, part one of a two-part workshop organized by recipients of the University of Arizona (UA)’s National Science Foundation (NSF) TRIPODS+X award. The UA is one of twelve recipients of the NSF’s TRIPODS (Transdisciplinary Research in the Principles of Data Science) initiative and one of about 30 awardees of a TRIPODS+X grant.

The first-ever Lemon Labs workshop was held this week at the UA’s Biosphere 2, hosted by researchers from the UA and the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS).

The workshop was conducted in an innovation lab format, which brings together diverse participants to brainstorm and strategize broad solutions to varying questions. The 30 participants included researchers from data-driven open science disciplines, such as astronomy, earth sciences, computational and information sciences, mathematics, climate science, and cyberinfrastructure, as well as researchers with training and human-centered design expertise.

Participants at Lemon Labs worked together through a series of simple activities to help them understand elements of collaboration.

Photo credit: Tina Lee/CyVerse

The questions they tackled were befitting of such a diverse gathering: over the course of the three-day event, the group discussed challenges and full-blown failures in their inter- and transdisciplinary collaborations, with the goal to develop “10 Simple Rules” researchers should employ in domain science–data science collaborations.

“When domain scientists like myself start to work with data scientists, we realize that we can have very dissimilar expectations,” said Chi-kwan Chan, an astronomer in the UA’s Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory and a Data Science Fellow at the UA’s Data Science Institute. Chan leads the Computations and Software Working Group for the Event Horizon Telescope project, an international and interdisciplinary collaboration of over 200 researchers. “We operate under Simple Rules for many things; and we certainly should have one for data scientists and domain scientists.”

Lemon/ade Labs aims to fix this, as attendees were given examples of 10 Simple Rules and then encouraged to work together to develop similar guidelines for domain science–data science collaborations. The participants will continue to work together remotely to develop their 10 Simple Rules and test them out in their ongoing and future collaborations.

For Chan, the workshop was refreshing. “I was very harsh on myself when I first joined large collaborations and things don’t go as planned,” he said. “Having witnessed similar sentiments from others here, I have become more comfortable with the notion that problems are natural to large collaborations and we just need to learn to find workarounds for.”

“We want to encourage researchers to celebrate the times when things didn’t go quite as planned, and then to build upon the lessons learned from those trials, to improve processes going forward,” said Nirav Merchant, Director of the UA’s Data Science Institute and a Lemon/ade Labs organizer.

The researchers, it turned out, hardly needed encouraging. "This was an amazing group of thinkers and thought leaders who eagerly jumped into the event," said Greg LoRe, Principal Consultant with STEM Program Evaluation Assessment and Research, or SPEAR, who led the event activities and discussions. "I was impressed at how such a diverse group came together so swiftly to present their ideas and give equal attention to hearing other points of view."

"My favorite activity was the leaning activity where participants see how far they can lean on their own, and then how much farther they can lean when joining hands with others," LoRe continued. "This one activity sums up the cooperative nature of Lemon Labs to create purposeful, productive workgroups."

As the conference title playfully implies, the meeting is centered around the proverbial expression: “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Coincidentally (or not!), the state of Arizona named lemonade as the state beverage just as the event got started.

Part two, dubbed the Lemonade Labs (in which researchers will use the 10 Simple Rules gleaned from the Lemon Labs to devise more successful collaborative tactics and tools going forward – to make their lemonade) will be held in March, 2020 at NIMBioS at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, TN.