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Building community as a career

What did one computational biologist say to the other? It sounds like the start of a bad joke. But for Aidan Budd, it gets to the crux of his work as a community builder.

When he was a scientist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Budd’s main responsibilities were research and teaching. But he was also responsible for fostering community among his colleagues. He organized regular meetups where the denizens of his campus in Heidelberg, Germany, could chat informally about whatever was on their minds. During one of these events, a computational scientist mentioned that his bench colleagues regularly came to him for basic computer programming help. Another computational scientist affirmed that she frequently answered the same set of computer skills questions. And they realized that they could teach a workshop covering coding basics to help their colleagues fill this knowledge gap. But, they drew blanks over handling the administrative parts of organizing a workshop.

In another scenario, this could have been when the idea withered and died, leaving the bench scientists light on computing skills and the computational scientists donating their time piecemeal to help their colleagues. Instead, Budd stepped in and helped them book the room, order snacks and drinks, and take care of other logistics. In fact, Budd made it so easy that the scientists were eager to run the course again. It has since become a campus staple, running regularly for the last 7 years, with other scientists joining in to teach.

The evolution of the course captures Budd’s joy in community organizing. Everyone benefited. Attendees learned new skills and made new acquaintances. The scientists leading the course discovered a new interest in teaching. The course supported the institutional leadership’s goal to encourage collaborations and knowledge transfer between the diverse disciplines on campus, so the leadership was happy to fund the activity. The good feelings reached Budd, too. He had helped his colleagues form new relationships, find shared interests, and support their peers. And he made carrying out their ideas easy. “Making those things happen—that’s a huge kick for me,” he says.

Fostering community

Community management is a relatively small but potentially growing area of opportunity for Ph.D. scientists looking to extend their impact beyond the bench. Positions with community management responsibilities can be found at universities, research institutes, and scientific associations, according to a 2016 survey. Some of these roles focus on in-person community building. But in this age, social connections form just as readily over the internet. Online community building is the focus of the yearlong Community Engagement Fellows Program (CEFP) sponsored by AAAS (the publisher of Science Careers), which aims to train scientists in online community management strategies.

The enrollment in the program reflects the diversity of this fledgling area. In last year’s inaugural class of fellows, just seven of the 17 fellows had the word “community” in their titles, such as “community manager” and “community engagement director.” Other fellows had titles including “project manager” or “program manager” or titles related to communications.

As the titles suggest, these roles can include responsibilities beyond community management. Lou Woodley, who runs the CEFP and is also director of community engagement and marketing for AAAS’s online forum platform Trellis, sees that variety as a positive. The best part about the roles she has held over her 10 years in the field—her repertoire includes developing tools to help scientists work together more effectively, organizing virtual conferences, and helping scientific journal editors use Twitter and Facebook to build community with scientists—is that “no 2 days look the same,” she says. “You’re always moving on to some other thing.” In her current role, Woodley’s day might switch between training people to use Trellis, writing articles for members of the communities she oversees, and relaying user feedback to the platform’s technical team. There’s “no opportunity to be bored,” she says.

Over the course of developing and running the CEFP, Woodley has noticed that scientists in these roles are often the ones who organized the holiday dinner or passed birthday cards around in lab. They were “typically that connecting-people person,” she says. If that sounds like you, community management may be just what you’ve been looking for. But to make the transition happen, you may need some creativity in your job search and flexibility in the responsibilities you are willing to take on.

Paths to community

During his Ph.D., Budd realized he found personal interactions and establishing relationships more fulfilling than research. So, when his Ph.D. supervisor—who wanted to increase the sense of community among the hundreds of scientists at EMBL—had the resources to bring on a staff member who would spend part of the time building community, he approached Budd about the job. The same narrative helped Budd find his current position as senior community and business development manager at the Earlham Institute in Norwich, U.K., where he is working to expand the use of bioinformatics tools developed by his supervisor’s lab. “I still see it as unusual and lucky that I was able to find that person” who valued community building and was willing and able to commit resources to it, Budd says of both of his job moves.

Woodley got into the field through an internship with Nature Publishing Group during her biochemistry Ph.D. The organization was experimenting with a variety of online tools, including an online professional networking platform and a website bookmarking service, to help scientists do their work. Her job was to help identify the tools that the scientific community would embrace. She found that she enjoyed the work, and her career trajectory was set.

For biologist Marsha Lucas, on the other hand, it was an interest in writing that eventually led her to community management work. After finishing her Ph.D., she explored various science communication opportunities until, in 2012, she began her current position at the Society for Developmental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland, where she writes and edits for the society’s newsletter and website and develops educational outreach activities. She hadn’t expected community management to be part of the role when she started it. The organization’s directors had talked for some time about helping students participating in its undergraduate summer research program, Choose Development!, connect with each other before meeting in person, but the program was not in her purview. However, when she learned of the CEFP in the fall of 2016, she decided to take the lead on the project. She felt that helping students develop a sense of community would improve their research experience, and she also saw an opportunity to learn new skills and further her own professional development.

Lucas had little experience in building an online community when she started the CEFP. But during the weeklong training session last January that kicked off the fellowship, she learned the basics of what she would need to do to successfully cultivate community among the undergraduate researchers. She started putting these skills to use on the Choose Development! online forum by proactively seeding discussions, posting questions such as “What are you working on?” and “What was a win this week?” She wrote a top 10 list of reasons to pursue a career in the field to stoke the students’ enthusiasm about the discipline. In the beginning, she personally emailed students and professors to nudge them to write about their research experiences or to reply to a discussion question on the forum. But as the summer progressed, she saw students sharing their opinions and initiating discussions on their own. Conversations were happening without her prodding. That was a win for her, she says.

Whether the work focuses on in-person meetings or building virtual relationships, the role provides scientists an opportunity to impact their disciplines. For Malvika Sharan, Budd’s successor at EMBL, that meant promoting her passions for open science and diversity—interests she had developed during her Ph.D. through attending conference sessions and interacting with colleagues, including Budd, who were active community builders. As a community facilitator at EMBL for the past year and a half, she has been involved in several community projects, including events to spread awareness about open science, and a panel discussion about diversity in science is in the works. “I felt that this was the niche I belong to,” she says.

Sharan finds her community management work fulfilling. However, the role has its challenges, too. Although some scientists see the importance of community organizers, the broader scientific community may not readily see the value, Sharan notes. One year into her role as a community manager, Sharan resumed her work on RNA-binding proteins. She found she missed her research, she admits. But, she also wanted scientists to perceive her as one of them. “I do not want to look like an outsider who is talking about things that do not concern me,” she says. And although she is happy to be able to conduct research as part of her job, she would also like to see more scientists take the initiative to give back to their communities and “not think that it’s someone else’s task,” she says. Ideally, she continues, everyone would do a bit of community management.