ANN ARBOR---When researchers in the Great Lakes Center for AIDS Research need to put their heads together, they usually won't be sitting down at conference tables or huddling around one another's computer screens. That would be pretty difficult, in fact, because the center's researchers are based at four Midwestern universities---Northwestern University, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Wisconsin.
Instead, these far-flung collaborators will meet in a "virtual center" created with the help of a Michigan team that specializes in exploring how technologies of voice, video and data communication can allow people to work together in new ways. This combination of collaborative technologies and U-M expertise will make it possible for the AIDS researchers, recently awarded a joint National of Institutes of Health grant, to work together as if they were right down the hall from one another.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this is the first time institutions in four different states have teamed up to create a joint research center funded through the NIH Centers for AIDS Research (CFAR) program. It is also the first time in the CFAR program's 10-year history that computer technology will be used to create a "center without walls," where researchers in different locations can work together as easily as if they were all in the same place.
"All of us are pretty excited about it," says Janet Young, program officer for the AIDS division's basic science program at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The CFAR program recently began encouraging groups of AIDS researchers at different institutions who are already collaborating to consider organizing themselves into a center. "But we realized all along that one potential problem is geographical distance. The experiment that the Great Lakes Center for AIDS Research is establishing is a very innovative way to address these concerns in a very direct manner," says Young.
Suites of collaborative tools for this project will be assembled, implemented and evaluated by investigators at the U-M's Collaboratory for Research on Electronic Work (CREW). CREW researchers are nationally recognized for their research on "collaboratories," virtual environments in which researchers can collaborate without regard to their geographical locations---interacting with one another, sharing data and computational resources, accessing information in digital libraries, and even using scientific instruments at faraway sites.
One of CREW's most advanced collaboratory projects is the Upper Atmospheric Research Collaboratory (UARC), an effort funded by the National Science Foundation which allows an international community of space scientists to carry out scientific experiments from their home laboratories via the Internet, using instruments scattered across the Northern Hemisphere. Building on their successes with UARC, CREW researchers have developed similar projects in other fields, such as a medical collaboratory focusing on radiology, a collaboratory for brain science and industrial collaboratories for Ford, IBM, Intel and other corporations.
The CREW researchers already have been working with the international AIDS research community through another project, the International Cancer and AIDS Research Education Network (ICARE Net), funded by the John D. Evans Foundation. With this prior experience, the CREW team was able to "hit the ground running" when they started working with the Great Lakes group, says Stephanie Teasley, a CREW assistant research scientist who is directing the CFAR computer collaboratory effort. For example, the CREW team already has shown the Great Lakes group software that will allow them to meet in virtual space to look at and discuss complicated images generated from their data. The researchers will be able to pull up these images from any computer, whether or not it is loaded with the software that was used to create the images. Other software will allow them to participate in one another's seminars, lecture presentations and lab meetings.
Some of the software the CREW researchers recommend is commercially available. Other products are being tested through agreements with their developers, and still others are being developed at CREW. No matter where the individual collaborative tools come from, the CREW team pulls together and evaluates suites of tools that best meet the needs of a particular group of users. In all their collaboratory projects, CREW researchers work closely with users to understand how they use the tools and what improvements might be helpful.
"Our philosophy is user-centered design," says Teasley, "so we need to keep track of what the users want to do and then respond in unique ways when the tools need to be customized. We look at the tools and how the tools get used, but we're also interested in how their use can change the nature of the work being done. For example, we want to find out whether the kind and quality of scientific research being done by these CFAR participants will change over time as they are able to work more closely with each other."
If this virtual center is as successful as other CREW collaboratory projects have been, its benefits could ripple beyond the Great Lakes group. "I'm eager to see how well the approach works," says the NIAID's Young, "as it could be useful to other multi-institutional centers that will be formed."