Voice of Early-Career Researchers on Research Culture

ESOF 2020 Special Issue is sponsored by

One of the main goals of EuroScience is to give voice to scientists. In the spirit of helping the scientific community create positive change, EuroScience Open Forum at ESOF 2020 organised a special session on research culture. In this session with ESOF Travel grantees, the personal experiences of early-career researchers took centre stage. Moderated by EuroScience Governing Board member Brian Cahill, the panelists discussed topics ranging from research culture, work-life balance, international mobility, science communication and the impact of the pandemic on their research lives.

Chloë Deelkens, Cellular Agriculture PhD student at Ghent University

We all have those little mysteries in life we keep pondering about. What is that watery liquid floating on the top of our yogurt and can we eat it? Why do our fingers wrinkle after swimming? Why do we hiccup? And why do humans have an appendix? Being fascinated by the complexity and mysterious unknown phenomena of the natural and physical world made me become a scientist. Science is complex and multi-faceted but intriguing in many perspectives. It is a process of acquiring new knowledge through observations, hypotheses and experiments, and it will never finish. Every discovery you make leads to more questions, new unknowns, to something you want to understand and clarify. This made me realize that ‘the more we know, the more we know we know nothing at all.’ It is this search for answers, my innate intellectual curiosity that kept me in the research field after graduating to pursue a doctoral degree. I want to achieve the depth of knowledge and face the technical challenges necessary to become a vital contributor to human science.

However, embarking on a PhD is not as easy as it always seems. Young researchers face many hurdles on their way to become a great scientist. Although it is one thing to convince yourself that starting a doctoral program represents your best professional, intellectual and personal interest, it is another to convince the admission committees that you are the perfect PhD candidate. Graduating in the year 2020 was not the best time to get onto the job market and look for PhD opportunities; places are more limited, competition higher and selections even more experience-based during this global pandemic. Getting turned down for a job you really wanted can be painful and make you precarious. Especially if you had been a leading candidate for the position, made it through to the last round of interviews, but got told someone else had more expertise. 

At that moment, I had to remind myself of all I had accomplished so far: I travelled alone to the other side of the world to sharpen my linguistic skills; I studied abroad, where I hardly knew anyone, to broaden my scientific perspectives; and I had the perseverance to work on my thesis daily, after a premature cessation of the lab work due to covid and even independently analyze alternative project methods without the possibility to perform them myself. An excellent graduation result and the selection for an FWO travel grant for ESOF2020, Europe’s largest interdisciplinary science conference, proved my success and achievement as a student and encouraged me once again. These milestones enabled me to realize my self-efficacy and enriched my problem-solving thinking, independence and an ambitious attitude to continue my career as a doctoral researcher. Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic is just another challenge you have to take on to prove your adaptability and flexibility, which pushes you towards becoming a real (scientific) researcher.

Today, I am a PhD student leaping into the evolving field of cellular agriculture. Even though this pandemic affects my research group’s acquaintance and restricts the lab work, I still push scientific discovery forward and make this place one that science endeavours to explain. It is possible science may one day find the answers, but if not, it will not be for lack of trying. 

Alexander John Cruz, PhD student at KU Leuven

I am a senior PhD student at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium and the experience as a foreign doctoral student is a very enriching one. Of the many highlights and lowlights of my PhD stint, the outreach activities on science communication have been the most meaningful for me. In Belgium, there is Scriptie vzw, a regional initiative championing science communication for the general public. One of the many mandates of Scriptie vzw is Science Figured Out!, where they train young researchers to formulate a 3-minute pitch about their research work. As a public speaker way back in high school, I thought it would be a “walk in the park”. Little did I know how difficult it was to formulate a sharp and succinct script about 4 year-PhD work! Every word, every phrase, and every sentence should be rich with information, accurate, and at the same time, engaging. The image you create in the minds of the audience should stick. You have to make them crave for more. You have to make it so compelling to make them do more research about your work. After the crafting of the script, the video shoot is another thing. Here, you have to project yourself as an ambassador for your research group. Every aspect of your body movement, pronunciation, blinking of your eyes, and other elements in non-verbal communication (e.g., facial expression, pauses, etc.) come into play. I am grateful for the patience of the video production crew and I was given a chance to carry out multiple takes to attain an acceptable version of my pitch. In the end, we were able to craft a short video production where I link my research to one of the most sensation topics in the healthcare sector—early diagnosis using low-cost, efficient, and effective sensors. I am inviting you to have a look at the finished product here.

After this short production, my self-esteem picked up a bit and I took the courage to join a 3-minute PhD pitch competition, the Falling Walls Lab. It is practically the same thing as the video recording with Scriptie vzw. The only difference is that you only have a single take to convince a group of jury members and the audience, that your pitch is the best one out there. With the training I received in the past, I was able to win the People’s Choice Award and had the opportunity to represent Belgium in the International Falling Walls Conference, held virtually this year. It was truly rewarding for me to know that I have increased the reach of my 3-minute pitch from a local level to a global scale. I received a lot of positive feedback from friends, former colleagues, and even from scientists I have not met before, from all over the world! I believe that this is a big step forward, in conjunction with more conventional means such as scientific publications and conferences, towards disseminating the work that we do in our group. If you are interested, here is my pitch for the Falling Walls Lab.

I do believe that existing technologies are available to address the most pressing challenges that our society is facing. But making the science available to the masses is another story. I have faith that science communication is a first step in the right direction.

Catherine Meyer, Doctoral Student at Universität Hohenheim

My path to being an agricultural scientist and going into research has never been straight forward. I wasn’t a good student in school. I wrote almost every exam twice at the university. I was told I don’t belong. I was overthinking every step and doubting my chosen road. However, I was sure of two things: (1) I wanted to work with plants and (2) I would never stop fighting for myself and the place I could see myself in: me climbing through the tree crowns of a rainforest. 

My endeavours in science started with studying molecular plant biology. Working in the lab and staring into tubes with colourless solutions, though, didn’t make me happy. I wanted something more outdoorsy and with relation to humans. Therefore, after my biology degree, I chose to study agricultural sciences and I felt like I had arrived. Through a series of fortunate events, I got the amazing opportunity to do my master thesis on fiber banana including a 3-month stay in The Philippines for data collection.

Excited and super motivated, I started my fieldwork in forest-like plantations with incredibly steep 40° slopes. And I was completely overwhelmed by the circumstances and questioned how to survive the upcoming months, let alone complete research and an effective data collection. 

I wasn’t new to fieldwork, the long laborious hours under all weather conditions, the physical work, being mentally alert for hours. Everyone who ever did long hours in the field or in the lab knows what I mean. It is physically and mentally draining.

There are, however, some huge differences between doing its data collection abroad, or close to your university, home, supervisor and colleagues. You are alone, far away and oftentimes in a different time zone from your supervisor, internet connections are bad and scientific resources, like a simple 70% ethanol solution, are hard to come by. You find yourself confronted with a very tight schedule, high pressure to deliver results, language barriers and cultural differences.

Well, what am I getting at? 

Simple. Everything can be carefully planned beforehand, but without a doubt, you will meet unexpected circumstances. Plans will not work out perhaps due to very steep slopes, and adaptations need to be made. However, contacting your supervisor or doing additional literature research is not an option. I mean you are standing alone in the middle of a field. 

So, you need to start to trust your scientific training and mind, everything you learned, all the expertise you build during your years of studying. You need to be able to adapt. There is no time for doubts or second-guesses. The learning curve is steep but you gain so much. You grow as a scientist. You start to trust your instincts and your knowledge.

Every single fieldwork time abroad belongs to some of the best experiences of my life. The Philippines paved the beginnings of a new road for me. Today, I am a PhD student working on Acrocomia oilseed palms in Brazil and Germany. Even though a global pandemic makes fieldwork abroad impossible and I needed to adapt my project accordingly, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Remember the picture of the tree crowns in the rainforest?

The most important lesson, though, I learned: when you meet a wall, take a deep breath, close your eyes and think about how to get by based on what you know. You will see that you have it in you. Use it! Trust yourself! You got so far. You belong!

Dr Ibon Santiago, physicist, Humboldt Research Fellow at TU Munich

Research culture refers to the norms, social behaviours and environment in which research takes place. It is by no chance that “culture” is the same word that describes bacterial growth in a petri dish. Just like cells need an appropriate medium to grow, scientists also need the right ecosystem to foster. So, what characterises a stimulating research culture?  Here I share some thoughts based on my scientific journey, which has taken me from my native Basque coast to Boston, Oxford and now to the heart of Bavaria. 

The driving force in science is curiosity. This is the main reason that motivated many of us to enter the world of science. The sense of awe and wonder when looking at the stars or watching a cell divide, the need to explain what happens around us is a powerful catalyst for the scientific endeavour. A thriving research culture should encourage, inspire and protect the curiosity of all its members. Borrowing from physics, critical mass is the sufficient mass necessary to sustain a chain reaction. Similarly, a critical mass of resources (both human and physical), a good dose of communication and collaborations can sustain the chain reaction of scientific discoveries. Curiosity, communication and collaboration are the ingredients to form the ideal “petri dish” for scientists to grow. 

Interaction between cells and their environment give rise to interesting phenomena, like beneficial mutations and mobility. Researchers, by sharing their knowledge with other groups, and being exposed to other environments and cultures, can acquire new skills and pass them onto others. In this sense, science is a global enterprise that knows no borders. In fact, research thrives in environments that are open for free mobility, thereby enabling communication and collaboration. Many funding agencies prioritise mobility as one of the main requirements, and research institutes also value the experience of mobile scientists. It is not all positive for researchers, as mobility has its flipside. Some researchers spend a long time abroad, get used to their host research culture and then find it difficult to re-enter the system they left behind. Despite individual difficulties, mobility is essential for progress in science, just like it is for the survival of bacteria. 

Bacteria and scientists alike thrive when placed in a nurturing and warm environment. Promoting a stimulating research culture should be a priority of research centres and science policymakers. We should recognize that improving research culture and integrity around us is also pivotal to excellence in research. The work of EuroScience in giving voice to researchers ‘concerns and enabling positive change in research culture, inclusion and integrity within the European research landscape is invaluable. However, one need not wait for the right environment to come but can be an active agent in creating a lively research culture around us. Let the conversation continue!

This article was written by the four early career researchers and coordinated by Brian Cahill, member of the governing board of EuroScience.

This article is part of a Special Issue about ESOF 2020 – held in Trieste, Italy from 2 to 6 September 2020.

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