The end of the year is a very reflective time, where we devote more awareness to the important connections in our lives. For this post I wanted to share what I have come to learn about the importance of connection and community during my time in academia.
We often feel like we are alone and should be independent in grad school and science. Certainly, to be in academia we must be driven and self-motivated, but that can sometimes get confused with having to deal with things completely in isolation. I think that it is rare to become successful and content without sharing with others.
The connections we make shape our perspectives, create future opportunities, and are the conduit for positive change that reaches beyond our inner circles. Interactions with our peers help us foster productive and healthy routines, add deeper meaning to our work, and provide support and validation during the process.
Collaborations bring new perspectives
Let me tell you about a recent opportunity I had to foster an important connection. Last month I had the honor of hosting Dr. Adam Ford in his visit to Memorial. We initially connected when he was the external examiner for my comprehensive exams and we have been collaborators on the resulting manuscript.
Having Adam’s passionate and sharp mind added to the mix for a couple days was energizing for our lab. It is valuable to introduce new perspectives to challenge our habitual ways of thinking and tackling problems. Over time we do slowly adapt our perspectives to resemble those of the people we are close to, so new connections and perspectives are important. There is immense value in variety, where doing things the same way over and over can lead us to failure.
Following Adam’s visit he said something that resonated with me “We are scientists, but we are also human. Who we work with and interactions we have shape the way we do science. I took this to mean that building relationships with other scientists is just like building relationships in any other facet of life: our connections reverberate beyond our initial interactions and become internalized. We have to be conscious of these connections, as they will eventually culminate into who we are and what we spend our time doing.
Jim Rohn once said “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. We could divide these people up into personal and professional connections or allow the average law to include a few more than just five individuals. Regardless of the exact number it is an important idea to reflect on. I can safely say every relationship I currently invest in makes me both a better scientist and human being. Choose your connections wisely, they make up who you are. In fact, having people that I truly admire in my life has made me more confident in myself.
Why you should build a community before building a network
A network of professional connections is important, but in this post I want to focus on community. The two are very different: Both are made of connections that shape our future opportunities, careers, and importantly, who we are. Having a large network certainly has direct career benefits including new projects, publications, speaking opportunities, and references. In comparison, your community is the closer circle of people with whom you associate with daily and invest in more deeply. They are the inner network that will not only support you during challenging times, they will be your advocates and help you make important connections to add to your future network. So, focus on building your community, and your network will grow too.
During Adam’s visit I was very proud to share the community and culture that exists in our lab. I think that the altruistic care we have for each other allows us to put aside our own productivity to support the well-being of others, which in turn allows us all to excel. The community that I am so grateful for is curated by my supervisor, Eric Vander Wal, who promotes the following ideology with Carrissa Brown (PI of the Northern EDGE Lab in Geography): “There are enough researchers who are both brilliant and nice that one does not need to commit to working with researchers who are brilliant but not nice”. The focus on “niceness” results in my lab prioritizing thought and participation, both in science and in people.
Here is an example of how this simple principle is seen by those beyond our lab. Adam attended our biweekly writing group during his visit. Afterward, he described it as: “demonstrably supportive and creative. Best analogy: Imagine Reviewer 2 was your favourite auntie… You won’t get away with [anything], but you’re going to be helped to be your best.”
The sharing of ideas and experiences with others is one of my favourite parts of being in academia. I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to mentor and collaborate with field assistants and students in my lab as a part of Team Wolf or those who work in Manitoba (where my study site is located). I truly have never been prouder than when friends and colleagues I have helped have succeeded and achieved their goals. (Congratulations Sana on giving a great MSc exit seminar and Katrien on winning best talk at ASFWB!)
The ripples of a shift in lab culture can spread through your institution and field of study. In addition to growing our local community, myself and my lab have tackled some bigger issues including feminism in science, mental health awareness, and science advocacy. Therefore, smaller scale decisions and intentions can proliferate into creating inclusive and supportive environments.
For those of us who have ever felt like we don’t belong, it can be liberating to take actions that spark the changes you wish to see in your environment. However, this leads me to my next point: it is important to strike a balance between investing in others and yourself.
The Selfish Balance: a successful community is built on two-way streets (get back what you put in)
In our last lab meeting of the year we all discussed this past semester and set some future goals for the coming semester and year. I reflected on how much of my time this past year I devoted to serving others, and how I focused too little on myself and my personal goals at times. In the future it may be better for me to plan more time to work on my thesis. However, it is not that my effort to serve others has been unrewarding. While I sometimes felt like I did not focus enough effort on my own work, I was developing skills and experience that will continue to serve me in the future. In fact, if I look at my personal and professional growth over the past year and semester, I have accomplished quite a bit because of my supportive community; for example, leading lab meetings, organizing the first Feminism in Science meeting, attending a conference, hosting Adam, organizing a science advocacy discussion, fulfilling my course requirement, and finishing up a manuscript. So, investment in others is not a direct path to self-development, but it is a meaningful one.
However, I would be careful with unidirectional connections and investments. We must be conscious of how the energy and time investment is appreciated or reciprocated by others. If someone is not acknowledging the time you put in or does not offer support in return, it might be a time to re-evaluate your effort.
Looking ahead to the next semester and year to come, I want to be thoughtful with where I put my time, and I urge you to do the same. We are all limited by time and energy, so we should not squander either. Develop a vision for where and who you want to be and make conscious daily decisions that will help you get there.
A special thank you to my community members Julia Lawler and Levi Newediuk for conversations that inspired and shaped these ideas.