The French-Speaking Biologist Network

I took a postdoc position at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, after completing my Ph.D. at the Institut Curie in Paris, France. It was then that I realized that moving to another country is not easy. But later I was even more surprised to discover how much more difficult it is to return to one's own country. You lose contacts during a stay overseas. Fortunately, I found out I was not alone. A few French postdocs, aware of this problem, had started a group to help information flow within the French community at NIH. This local start led to the creation of a French-speaking Biologist Network, a directory for the approximately 3000 French postdocs around the world. Our aim is to develop collaborations and communication between scientists, and we hope the directory will be a great help for people looking for a job since we have advertised it to 300 biotech companies in France.

Directories are common, but not for scientists who are moving or going abroad. Researchers from France have diverse educational backgrounds, for example coming from universities or engineering schools. Moreover, universities and Ph.D. schools do not maintain alumni directories. Finally, there are many different research organizations (universities, multiple government agencies, private companies), and there are no cross-platform, thematic directories. For these reasons, it is difficult to track researchers' pathways. It is also difficult to find people based on their discipline of study or research experience. This directory is meant to help people during their postdoc, and we hope it will also help future French-speaking postdocs all around the world. Graduate students can make contacts and get a better idea of what a postdoc is really like (How long does a postdoc last? What do people become after a postdoc? ...). It will also help monitor phenomena such as brain drain.

The Biologist Network grew from fr@NIH, which was created by Colombe Chappey in 1994. Fr@NIH aims to help French postdocs by providing a local directory, posting our experiences on its Web site, handing out information, contacting politicians, and organizing meetings. During the summer of 1999, Patrick Durand and I expanded the NIH French scientists directory on the Web site by adding some extra information, such as scientific key words and university of origin. It was clear to us that we did not want to display whole CVs but only information, including previous positions, experiences, and skills, which could facilitate interactions between French postdocs at NIH.

It occurred to us that including non-NIH postdocs and scientists with permanent positions could make the directory still more useful. From this point, with the help of Emmanuel Barbier and Eve de Rosny, we redesigned the Web site dedicated to the directory entirely and added space for the profile of each scientist (for an example, click here). The primary Web site was named fr@world (April 1999) and the final version "Biologist Network" ("La Toile des Biologistes," in French). Between the two versions, efforts were focused on designing a database-driven Web interface to ease the directory management. The seven-person team, all of us French postdocs who met at NIH, developed the current version of the Web site finally launched in December 2000. This latter version includes new features such as search engines and Web access to individual CVs. All these Web tools were home-programmed by Eve and Emmanuel.

The directory started with 70 postdocs from NIH. In May 2000, it had expanded to include 130 postdocs and in December 2000 we reached 300 working in 20 different countries. There are now more than 500 people registered, in 29 countries, and we hope to reach 1000 scientists in a year. The database accuracy is regularly maintained by e-mail check to each registered scientist. This accuracy is a key feature of its usefulness.

To allow for future expansion of the project, we created last December a nonprofit organization ("La Toile des Biologistes") under French law, which is totally independent of the very active group fr@NIH. The newly constituted group is going to receive financial support from the Science and Technology Mission of the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. We are currently seeking other sources of financial support to develop and maintain the Biologist Network.

In parallel with all this activity, we have initiated contact with other associations like the Association Bernard Gregory (well known in France for helping Ph.D.s from all backgrounds to find a job), which helped us to advertise the directory. Some other French postdoc associations like Sciencescope in Japan have joined us. We also believe that the Biologist Network has the potential to be a useful platform for linking existing associations. The existence of the directory may even initiate local groups. We are now working at contacting biotech companies, research institutes, and scientists isolated in different countries.

For me, the greatest pleasure in working on Biologist Network comes from knowing that people use this directory. Their feedback is very encouraging. Even if this voluntary job takes a lot of time, it helps me to make contact and to get a better understanding of research mechanisms. It is also very pleasant to meet people and try to understand what they need. Both companies and governmental organizations have recognized the need for such a directory. In fact, we not only help postdocs but we also help headhunters, French government agencies, and universities! At the time of new communication systems, I think that all directories could be free, precise, evolving, and interactive, thanks to the Internet.

La Toile des Biologistes Team: Emmanuel Barbier, François Boudsocq, Eve de Rosny, Jean-Christophe Meunier, Rémy Pedeux, Agnès Tissier, Dominique Vandewiele.

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