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Connecting with senior researchers can be scary, but remember that they're only human.

Credit: Steve Debenport/iStockphoto

Networking with Dr. God

Perhaps you’re at the Big Conference, standing in line for your $30 cup of coffee, when she strolls by. Or maybe you’re sitting in the lab lounge, reading the Big Paper that was just published, and out of the corner of your eye, you spot her. She’s the star around whom the whole field orbits. She is Dr. God.

Now your heart is hurdling out of your chest, and your hands are clammy with sweat. Do you introduce yourself? You would love to collaborate with her, but how do you begin the conversation without seeming like you are just trying to get something from her? “Why would she want to speak with me?” you wonder. “What value could I possibly offer?”

Concerns like these are understandable, but the truth is that networking with Dr. God is within reach. It starts with having the guts to approach and engage her, remembering that eminent researchers are mere mortals like you who, for the most part, want what you want: to discuss and advance science.

Take William Phillips, a fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and a 1997 Nobel laureate in physics. “I’m happy to talk with young people,” he says. “In fact, it’s one of the things I enjoy most. ... Nothing pleases me more than having a student come up and ask questions and another young person comes over—and then I end up with a knot of young people.”

Mutually beneficial

In 2009, Eric Padron—at the time in the first year of his fellowship at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida—was looking for a role model with whom he could develop a research alliance. “I thought, ‘Who’s a person who’s extremely well respected in their field [and] has a reputation of being nice and productive to work with?’” he says. “At the top of the list, no pun intended, was Dr. List,” referring to Alan List, an internationally renowned expert in malignant hematology who later became Moffit’s president and CEO. So Padron emailed List to request a meeting, which turned into a multiyear research partnership. Padron received valuable mentorship and List got a new collaborator, which helped him further his research.

Eric Padron

Eric Padron

Credit: Moffitt Cancer Center

Their collaboration demonstrates how benefits from these types of relationships between junior and senior researchers flow both directions—contrary to some young scientists’ misconception that they are the only ones who will get anything out of it, which can make them hesitant to reach out. “Many of us, as trainees, don’t value our time and capabilities as much as we probably should,” Padron says. “There’s a lot of things we can offer that are valuable to established investigators.” For starters, early-career scientists from a different generation are trained in techniques and technologies that may have not existed or were in their embryonic stages when Dr. God was in school. “These young scientists are … so highly skilled in areas I am not,” List says. “It’s complementary. I learn from them as well. I can help them refine their questions, and I learn from them an expertise in areas of training that I never did.”

“There’s equal knowledge coming back from early-career scientists,” agrees Liisa Kuhn, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington and president of the Society for Biomaterials. “They look at things differently because of their unique backgrounds. They combine techniques in new ways that I would never have dreamed of doing.”

Additionally, senior investigators know that networking with an up-and-comer offers an opportunity to build their legacies. “It’s a way of seeding the field with new ideas,” Kuhn says. “It’s almost like having children, carrying our intellectual energy forward.”

But just because these relationships offer benefits both ways doesn’t mean that early-career researchers don’t need to put some thought and effort into it. When you want to connect with someone, first and foremost ask yourself, “Why do you want to have a conversation with this person?” advises Steven Senger, an assistant professor of mathematics at Missouri State University in Springfield.  Over his career, he has made a point of introducing himself to senior researchers at conferences and via email. “If you’re thinking just about forwarding your career or trying to use this person as a tool, then that’s a bad reason to start a conversation. If you’re trying to kiss up or curry favor, I don’t see that as very classy. But if you say, ‘How did you come up with this idea?’ then that’s better, because it’s a human talking to a human.”

“There should be some reason you want to talk with them,” Kuhn agrees. “It’s not the same as a movie star that you want a picture with them,” she says—although, she laughs, “it’s OK to do a little bit of that.” 

Taking the leap

At the Big Conference, there are often plenty of opportunities to say hello and launch a conversation. “What I found most successful is if I am in line at a restaurant waiting to be seated near Dr. God and I introduce myself,” Kuhn says. As an early-career investigator, “when I saw someone at breakfast at the [conference] hotel restaurant, I wasn’t [too] shy to say, ‘Do you mind if I join you?’” she recalls. “It’s better to introduce yourself when you have a captive audience. Try to catch them when they are sitting down or at the bar rather than walking down the hall.” Or, “if you see [them] sitting down in the audience, sit near them and talk to them during the break,” she advises. “That’s a great moment to hop in.”

Abigail Fraeman

Abigail Fraeman

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For an icebreaker, declaring that you are a fan of their research can open the door to a broader conversation, says Abigail Fraeman, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Everybody likes to know that people appreciate their work, so they will take the compliment and want to learn about your career as well.”

You can also engage senior leaders after they finish their talks by asking them about the work they presented, Kuhn adds. Poster sessions hold especially good potential as well. “You could say, ‘Hey Dr. God, do you have a minute to look at my poster?’ … Bring them over to look at your work. Don’t just wait and wait for someone to come by.”

Being proactive is crucial. If you’re feeling hesitant, remember that, despite the scientist’s eminence in the field, she’s just a person. This mindset has helped Senger build success and confidence in networking with leaders, whom he doesn’t think of as superheroes. Instead, he focuses on the similarities they share. “We are fighting side by side against the same demons,” he says. “I feel I’m meeting a comrade, ... that we actually live on the same planet.” His final advice is simple: “Treat Dr. God like a human. … Don’t make it weird.”

It’s also helpful to remember that many senior researchers genuinely enjoy interacting with early-career scientists. “It’s rewarding. I like passing on the knowledge,” Kuhn says. List adds: “As established investigators, we all welcome the chance to mentor and help people succeed in their careers. We all remember just how difficult it is in the beginning.”

That’s not to say that every single networking attempt is guaranteed to strike gold. “I remember a few scientists who were not eager at all to talk to me,” Phillips recalls from earlier in his career. “They blew me off.” That can happen with anyone, whether they are a Dr. God or not. Don’t let it bother you. For his part, Phillips has turned those interactions around to make sure he doesn’t repeat what he sees as past wrongs. “I resolved that I wasn’t going to be like that, and instead emulate those people who had been kind to me when I was a student.”

And even a networking interaction that hits some snags can ultimately yield positive results. As a second-year graduate student, Fraeman had a rocky experience giving a presentation at a meeting of the space mission on which she was working, with the principal investigator (PI) of the entire endeavor watching her from the first row. “It was very nerve-racking for me to be standing in front of this person I had seen on TV,” she says. “I froze. I wasn’t prepared for the level of detail of questions I was asked, and standing in front of the group for the first time, things went more and more downhill.” But Fraeman kept going, and apparently she made a positive impression on the PI. “He has been very supportive of me in my career, and it’s been wonderful.” The experience taught her an invaluable lesson about the celebrities of the field: “Wherever you are in your career, they’ve been there too. And if the first interaction doesn’t go well, … it’s not the end of the world. … Continue interacting with them in the future, because they’re going to understand that you’re a young scientist and you are still learning.”

“I’m a big fan of thinking we are all people working for the same goal of understanding how the world and universe works,” Fraeman continues. “So you don’t have to elevate people who are further along in their careers on a pedestal. … The best advice is don’t view them as Dr. God. View them as your future collaborator and colleague.”

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