Brick by brick – Building communities part 1

The other week, I had the opportunity to attend a talk at the Biomedicum Young Researchers Symposium by Gretchen Repasky on Building your Science Career and Community for Success. It’s a rather broad topic, and the talk covered many interesting and important topics. To give her talk justice, this will be a three-piece blog series covering:

  1. Connecting with colleagues and building communities
  2. Broadening career perspectives through development of personal skills and networking, read it here.
  3. Mentoring for success in science and other careers, read it here.

First some words on our speaker: Gretchen Repasky is a researcher in cancer cell biology and cell signaling at the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM). FIMM is a node of the EMBL and operates according to their model. (EMBL have a very interesting career program for young researchers, and MIMS in Umeå is a similar EMBL initiative.) Gretchen is also very much involved in their PhD student recruitment programme and postdoctoral programme, and she works as a liaison in international networks. Being involved in these different area creates an important dynamic in her work, she says, feeding into each other.

Now onto the first topic: Connecting with colleagues and building communities – lower the barriers for interactions

The interactive tool, allowing the audience to participate in the talk.

Gretchen began her talk with a bit of audience participation, using a web site interface where we were asked to answer some multiple choice questions, such as how we felt today (the majority was tiered) and how much time we spent on developing our career (on the whole, too little). This exercise was a nifty way of making the audience feel included, and it would have been even better if she had tied into the answers more as the rest of the talk went along.

As an example of how to build research communities, she told us about The PhD recruitment and training programme at FIMM. It is designed to fulfil the needs of the PI to find excellent, skilful and motivated PhD students without sacrificing a lot of time and effort. A centralized recruitment training programme, organized on the institutional level, was developed. Recruiting on the institutional level provides a thorough candidate evaluation, shaped to the scientific strategy of the institute as a whole, and lessens the pressure on group leaders. To encourage collaborations, the programme includes a rotation scheme in the first year of studies, where the student spends three months in up to three different groups before registration. This has led to improved commitment, deeper knowledge, and strong connections within the institute. This sounds like a very good way to design a PhD programme, but it would be a big step to implement at KI where at least my recruitment was quite different. However, as Gretchen put it, Rome was not built in a day.

A PhD student and Postdoc council can provide a strong voice to the community ofstudents and postdocs. At FIMM, it is self-organizing with autonomy to explore and develop new ideas supporting student and postdoc research training and interests. It provides the organization that is needed to effectively  run a number of events, ranging from welcoming of new students, scientific coffee-breaks, seminars and much more. One activity Gretchen highlighted was the peer-to-peer mentoring group with goals to:

  •    Learn from each other how to improve interactions with PIs, colleagues, lab-mates, and co-authors
  •    Learn how to work effectively and productively keeping science, career aspirations, and work relationships in mind
  •    Facilitate intra-institute networking
  •    Build and strengthen a community voice

I have always felt that one of the great things with PhD courses was to meet other PhD students and discuss our life and work situation. While you could say that this is what lunch breaks with your fellow lab mates are for, it can be very valuable to get a perspective from someone outside your research group. To formalize this through a peer-mentoring programme sounds like a great idea. This mentoring scheme aims to train the participants in people skills, improve networks and help participants to stay motivated throughout their studies. Gretchen introduced some very interesting topics to discuss:

  •    Time and project management
  •    Saying no and asking for help
  •    Managing discussions
  •    Gender in science
  •    (Mis)communication

FIMM also has an institutionally organized postdoctoral and senior researcher professional development program. It provides opportunities for the community of postdoctoral and senior researchers, supporting them and the group leaders, as well as the scientific advancement at the institute. The programme is composed of five components: recruitment, mentoring, career development, social events and promoting mental health awareness and well-being. I am especially pleased to see that FIMMPOD recognises that well-being is key to achieving a successful and fulfilling career. The programme aims to address the issue of mental health  through mentoring, community discussions, supporting courses and events. This is a very important issue, and I hope KI will be inspired to also take it into consideration, preferably for PhD students as well as for postdocs. Related to this topic: an important but sad read in The Guardian.

The FIMMPOD programme is a very much needed initiative which gives senior researchers and postdocs the feeling that they are valued and motivates them. It organizes a multitude of useful events:

  •    Grant Application Exchange Program – a sort of peer-review of applications
  •    FIMM Meets PharmaEvent
  •    Coffee Talk with Docents – aiming to clarify the steps towards becoming a docent
  •    Writing Days – a few participants are sent to a hut in the woods for a weekend, and must write (a paper, an application, your CV) with no distractions and good company.
  •    Brown Bag Lunch Discussion – because you need to eat lunch anyway
  •    How To Improve Your Negotiation Skills
  •    Improving Your LinkedIn Profile Workshop
  •    Understanding and Developing My Leadership Skills
  •    CV Clinic
The take home message: What works in one place may not necessarily work in another, and so we have to think critically about specific needs and specific solutions for each specific situation: Identify the needs. Think analytically. Be creative in finding solutions. Be proactive rather than reactive. Practice with peers. Don’t worry overmuch, everyone struggles.

A postdoc programme is different from a postdoc association, as it is organized by the institution, not self-organized by postdocs. While KI lacks a programme, there is a postdoctoral association with an aim to give postdocs a voice and a supportive network, as well as the Junior Faculty with the aim of promoting development of a career system at all levels. It would be really great if KI would start a postdoc and junior researcher programme such as the one at FIMM, but in the meantime, hopefully the postdoctoral association and junior faculty will be inspired to organise these type of events, perhaps in collaboration with Career Service at KI.

A final piece of advice from Gretchen on how to organize events to build communities: Identify common needs and use creative titles to attract attention, both from potential participants and from the Institution that should host these events.

Here is a link to Gretchen’s presentation.

2 thoughts on “Brick by brick – Building communities part 1

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