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The 10 on the Team: Athena Aktipis

September 24, 2021

In our premiere 10 on the Team  interview, we talk with author, professor and podcast host Athena Aktipis, who answers 10 questions about teams and teamwork from the perspective of a theoretical evolutionary biologist and cancer biologist.  

Athena Aktipis is an Associate Professor in the Psychology Department at Arizona State University, co-Director of the Human Generosity Project and Director of Human and Social Evolution and co-founder of the Center for Evolution and Cancer at the University of California, San Francisco. She is a cooperation theorist, theoretical evolutionary biologist, and cancer biologist who now works at the intersection of these fields. Aktipis is also author of The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Helps Us Understand and Treat Cancer, Chair of the biannual Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meetingand host of the podcast, Zombified. 

10 on the Team 1

What are 5 qualities of highly effective teams?

The most important qualities in highly effective teams are shared goals, trust, enthusiasm, shared stake in each other’s wellbeing and flexibility. These qualities allow teams to be effective because they can be cooperative and adaptable in new and changing environments.

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Of those 5 qualities – is there 1 that is an absolute essential? Why?

Shared goals are absolutely essential, but then there also has to be trust. It doesn’t matter if the goals of the team members are aligned unless everyone actually knows that and trusts each other that they are all on the same page.

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What facilitates good team communication? 

Trust, for sure! And shared goals. I sense a recurring theme here!

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What is kryptonite to a good team?

If somebody feels like they are being exploited, that can kill a team’s energy and effectiveness. Sometimes people can feel that way even if they are not actually being exploited, hence the importance of communication and trust!

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What are ways in which teams can “grow”/develop their team-ness?

Working together to develop shared goals is one great way. Another important thing is to have fun together!

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You have studied cooperation (broadly speaking) among a number of groups, cultures, and societies.  Perhaps its reciprocity or risk pooling, or maybe transparency among partners, but is there 1 (or maybe 2) essential ingredients to facilitate cooperation between individuals?

The aspect of cooperation that I’m most interested in that I’ve seen across societies is need-based helping, which is basically: only ask for help if you’re in need and then if you are able to help, you help. This is a principle that helps both individuals and societies be more resilient. We also use it in my lab for some of our collaborative projects!

10 on the Team 7

We often think of collaboration as an essential element of team-ness, but are there times where collaboration can be detrimental to a team’s intended outcome or aim – whether it be a team of cells, humans, or animals?

Well, we always have to think “cooperation toward what end?” when we talk about cooperation. The fact is, sometimes subgroups can cooperate to exploit a larger group, like cancer cells cooperating to exploit our cells’ natural cooperative inclinations or organized crime exploiting the cooperation and infrastructure in our larger society. Cooperation isn’t always a good thing!

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What are 3 things you have learned in regards to cooperation in the frame of the current pandemic? 

We started a big research project as the pandemic was beginning, looking at cooperation, interdependence and many other aspects of social behavior. As the pandemic unfolded, people reported feeling more interdependent with others (especially with all of humanity). I’ll point you to our interactive website where you can look at our data and see for yourself!

10 on the Team 9

Do you have any favorite examples of cooperation from books, movies, or tv shows?

I love the beautifully-shot zombie apocalypse movie, Train to Busan. The way it portrays cooperation and conflict among the train passengers is simultaneously fun, funny, and profound. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I’m not going to say more!

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You’ve talked and written about various aspects of zombies and zombification, from your famous Zombified podcast, to your blog posts and various articles for Slate, Nature, and other outlets. Who will play you in the next zombie action-horror flick?

I asked my 16-year-old daughter and she said that Ana de Armas, the Cuban-Spanish actress, should play me in the next zombie apocalypse movie. I defer to my daughter on all such matters. 

And follow-up, will you survive until the credits? 

I sure hope I would be the final girl/non-binary individual.

Final follow-up – if/when the zombieapocalypse does happen, do you think the zombies will be fast like in World War Z and 28 Days Later or slow like Walking Dead and Dawn of the Dead (please say slow)? 

Umm… I hate to break it to you but the zombie apocalypse is already upon us. And the zombies are just kinda regular. You’d never guess that they are actually the unsick, walking around feeling fine because their sickness behavior and pain are being suppressed by the virus. Check this out if you don’t believe me.

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Is there anything else you would like to add?

We have a livestream channel called Channel Zed (The world’s leading zombie apocalypse channel!) where we stream shows every Monday at 10:30am AZ time all semester long. They’re always super fun and they are a way for us to engage with diverse audiences about apocalyptic questions that are on all our minds these days. You can tune into our livestream or check out our past shows.

Good luck out there! And don’t forget to cultivate a kick-ass Z-team (tips here) to help you survive these apocalyptish times!

The 10 on the Team
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