Suzanne Bell: Building teams for Mission to Mars

Nicole Ross
May 10, 2018

As a professor of industrial and organizational psychology in the College of Science and Health, Suzanne Bell's research focuses on strategic staffing of organizations, training and employee development, and maximizing team effectiveness. Bell has spent the past four years working on grants funded by NASA, in which she researches how to build and effectively manage future space teams. Continue reading to learn how she's aiding the advancement of space travel.

When did you begin working with NASA?

I first started working with NASA in 2013. I did a smaller project, called a literature review and operational assessment. The purpose was to compile existing research on the topic of team composition and to assess NASA's current operations regarding how they compose space exploration teams. My area of expertise is team composition - how the mix of individuals influences team dynamics and effectiveness. Since then I've worked on two grants in collaboration with faculty from Northwestern University. Our first project is building a predictive model of team composition for long-duration space exploration, such as Mission to Mars.

Why is team composition so important when it comes to space exploration?

Ensuring team members are complementary in terms of skills, personalities and other attributes is crucial. Future space exploration, such as Mission to Mars, will require small teams of astronauts to live and work in a space the size of a studio apartment for an extended period of time. The way team members think and feel about one another can affect the social support they provide to each other and how well they collaborate or coordinate.

While team members might be well-intended, when their relationships start to fracture it can affect their team performance. For example, they may exchange a little less information with a certain person, which can lead to poorer team decision making. A lot of times teammates think, 'Oh they're not my favorite person, but we're still performing well as a team' - but in reality, they're not. Effective team composition is an important enabling condition for effective teamwork.

How do you predict effective team composition?

At the Johnson Space Center, we collect data on four-person teams who live in the Human Exploration Research Analog. These teams are isolated from most outside influences and confined to the habitat for 45 days. We collect data on team member personalities, values, different competencies, how they think and feel about each other, and how they perform on different team tasks. We use data collection methods such as surveys, but also other methods called unobtrusive measures. For example, team members wear badges that tell us things like how far apart they are from one another throughout their day and turn-taking during conversations.

We use existing data and data we collect in HERA to inform our computer-based simulation. We use these simulations to model what would happen with different combinations of team members over the course of a two-and-a-half-year mission - which is how long a Mission to Mars would be. This year, we are validating the predictive models we created with new data we are collecting in HERA.

You mentioned you have two grants. Can you tell me about the second?

Mission to Mars will be an international collaboration. Our second grant combines the approach we use in our NASA-funded research to examine team member compatibility with the approach used by our Russian partners. We are building a collaborative model, and validating some of the Russian measures related to interpersonal compatibility. As part of the collaboration, we also compare the data we collect in 45-day HERA missions, with 105 and 500-day missions conducted in a Russian facility.

What does your research suggest in terms of ideal team composition?

Our data is still preliminary, but there are quite a few compositional factors that influence the dynamics and performance of teams in isolation and confinement. One interesting example is the dynamics that play out when team members have different military backgrounds. The leadership structure in the military is developed in a very specific way, which differs from, for example, a Ph.D. botanist's understanding of leadership.

Team members from military and non-military backgrounds don't seem to share the same mental model of how the team should operate, and this can lead to difficulties. That doesn't mean the ideal team is homogenous in terms of whether or not members have a military background. In our research, we also are exploring how teams with this type of diversity can effectively manage their differences. Team composition information can be used to tailor team interventions and training.

How do you balance teaching and research?

I try to look for synergies wherever I can. For example, our research provides interesting examples for class. Being immersed in research ensures my teaching is current. Research is an important component to psychology education, so I mentor a number of graduate and undergraduate students through my lab. DePaul's psychology department provides a good mix - opportunity to research, mentor students and teach classes in my areas of specialization. The balance of research and teaching, and the students are what I love about being a professor at DePaul.