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Fostering Support Systems in Science

Published February 14, 2018

By Jackie Giovanniello

Fostering Support Systems in Science
Fostering Support Systems in Science
Fostering Support Systems in Science
Fostering Support Systems in Science

Welcome to the first in a series of guest posts from Academy Members and Ambassadors. What better way to learn about what’s happening in our network than directly from those involved in it? Enjoy!

“Motivation comes from working on things we care about. It also comes from working with people we care about.”
–Sheryl Sandberg

Science is designed to be a rigorous discipline; it’s part of what ensures we are doing meaningful work that moves the field forward. Unfortunately, the stakes and the stress can also make it isolating, defeating, and exclusive for students and post-docs in the field. A recent study by the University and College Union in the UK suggests that nearly half of academics show signs of psychological distress. These effects are multiplied for women and minority groups – populations that are not afforded the advantages of being well-represented in science. This is a striking, and alarming, phenomenon. If we hope to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge, as well as medical and technological advancements, we need to invest in and cultivate a healthy, creative, diverse, and productive workforce. One of the most effective strategies is creating and supporting networks that foster diversity and inclusion, while also addressing mental health issues.

Two years ago, two colleagues and I launched an initiative to empower and advance women in science at our institution. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Women in Science & Engineering (CSHL WiSE) is now 100 members strong and has raised over $30,000 to support professional development resources, better mentorship, education and outreach opportunities, and more.

The program has had a strong impact at CSHL – raising awareness of issues affecting women scientists, and driving positive change in the way our institution tackles these issues. However, there’s also been a very significant impact that I underestimated when we began – the power of supportive networks. One of the most transformational aspects of CSHL WiSE has been the support system its members have gained – a non-judgmental, non-competitive, diverse group of colleagues that serve as mentors, collaborators, grant-editors, sounding boards, troubleshooters, therapists, or just friends. This group has fostered not only the professional advancement of each other’s careers, but also the mental health and wellness of those involved, and it has served as a necessary reminder of the importance of community and collaboration in our field.

Scientists are humans, not robots, and far too often we fall victim to burnout, imposter syndrome, and mental health issues. This should be reflected in the ways we, and our institutions, create networks and provide resources.

In addition to CSHL WiSE, I’ve continued working to advance women scientists with organizations like 500 Women Scientists, Scientista Foundation, and the Academy’s 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures program. I’ve seen the positive effects of supportive networks in each of these programs. It’s time we expand the definition of “network” past the idea of talking to an intimidating Principal Investigator at a conference.

Networks can be many things: a group of students gathering each week to troubleshoot each other’s experiments, post-docs volunteering to review each other’s job applications, or a group working to invite more diverse scientists for a lecture series. These networks can be grassroots and start small; they don’t need large amounts of funding or administrative approval, and they don’t need to have lofty goals. If they are inclusive and serve to support colleagues in their personal and professional lives, that is an important mission. Science and technology benefit from fostering collaboration and the mental health of our workforce and that requires all of us actively investing in more of these support systems.

Jackie is a PhD candidate in Neuroscience at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, President emeritus of CSHL WiSE, and co-founder of STEMpire, an organization working to improve professional development resources for the STEM workforce. You can find her on Twitter @Jackie_Gio and @CSHL_WiSE.

The Academy is committed to building a diverse STEM workforce from the ground up. Learn more about our Global STEM Alliance programs focused on junior high to undergraduate students here. And learn more about our career programs for graduate students, postdocs, and early career scientists here.