The “ivory tower” mindset that distances academia from everyday life was nowhere to be found at the inaugural Deep-C Student Research Symposium. Instead, this two-day event focused on helping students navigate the challenges they face in their journey to become scientists, now and in the future.
More than 660 graduate students are members of GoMRI-funded research teams working to understand impacts from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and improve future response. Eric Chassignet, director of the Deep-C consortium led by Florida State University, said that one of the most exciting aspects of receiving GoMRI support has been the opportunity to mentor students and involve them in cutting-edge Gulf research. He added, “They are going to be the next generation of scientists, the movers and shakers ten years from now.” With that in mind, Deep-C decided to give students their own “prime time” conference experience.
The fall 2014 symposium provided an opportunity for students to share their ongoing research. Audience members recorded their observations and suggestions, such as details about specific slides or public-speaking techniques, on feedback cards while students were presenting. “The intent is to create a professional meeting experience where students can give talks and get constructive feedback from peers and senior scientists in a non-threatening environment where they feel reasonably confident asking questions,” said Chassignet.
Short talks by invited experts, interspersed throughout the days, addressed carefully selected student-centered topics, such as “Responsible Conduct in Research,” “Stewardship of Scientific Datasets,” and “Put Your Degree to Work: Planning for a Successful Career.” Marine ecologist and Deep-C scientific director Felicia Coleman presented “Honing Your Message: The Curse of Too Much Knowledge” to help students communicate their work with various audiences, from scientists in other disciplines to reporters, family members, and friends. Coleman explained that communicating research concisely is a difficult, but much-needed skill and that being prepared to share science clearly is as important as having the knowledge itself, particularly when disasters such as the 2010 oil spill occur.
But, that is just the work aspect of being a scientist. These students are also contemplating how their personal lives fit in with a demanding science career, especially as they transition into more advanced studies or post-graduate positions. Deep-C Program Manager Tracy Ippolito said it was important to help students think beyond their graduate studies and consider the challenges that lie ahead. The symposium included time for small group discussions and socializing to encourage students to talk about what is on their minds.
A speed-dating style open question-and-answer session with senior scientists was a hit. Every ten minutes, groups of four to five students rotated among tables seated with two to three scientists. The room was buzzing with conversations as diverse as the people there. An oceanography student asked physical oceanographer Chassignet, “How can you be a director of such a diverse consortium that has so much biology and chemistry going on?” Another student challenged marine chemist Chris Reddy with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to share his “biggest mess-up.” A student struggling with his workload asked, “What about dating? How do you date when you’re doing your masters?” A student contemplating her professional future asked, “What else can I do with my science degree? I think I may like working more directly with the public or maybe policy.”
Following the round-robin session, a well-attended evening reception did exactly what Chassignet and Ippolito were hoping. “I saw people restarting conversations that had begun in the group setting,” Ippolito reflects. “Students can often be intimidated by senior scientists who, to them, appear unapproachable. But, the combination of food and mingling right after the round-robin provided an atmosphere conducive to candid and casual student/senior scientist exchanges.”
One key to the symposium’s success was that the scientists were completely onboard. Said Ippolito, “I received numerous thank-yous from them. They were appreciative that their students had the opportunity to present their work and to develop and grow.” Chassignet noted that the scientists benefited from this symposium as well, “The quality of our students reflects on us as scientists and mentors.” Chassignet also talked about the knowledge that he, as a consortium director, gained. “At a typical conference, students’ work may be shown in half a slide by a senior scientist. But here, students who are conducting in-the-trenches work had twelve minutes to inform me about their specific research projects. Getting that level of detail was extremely valuable.”
Chassignet is a big believer in providing opportunities for scientists of all ages and backgrounds to work with and learn from one another. “I’ve organized a number of research symposiums, and what’s really important – in addition to the great science – are the relationships that you establish. The people we meet at these events often become lifelong friends.”
Chassignet also noted, “One of the things that GoMRI can be most proud of, in addition to the fact that the grants have generated high-quality science, is that they have allowed us to provide opportunities to students that would not have been available otherwise. I derive immense pleasure in seeing a student blossom and become a fully independent thinker.”
This research was made possible in part by grants from BP/The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Deepsea to Coast Connectivity in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico (Deep-C) consortium. The GoMRI is a 10-year independent research program established to study the effect, and the potential associated impact, of hydrocarbon releases on the environment and public health, as well as to develop improved spill mitigation, oil detection, characterization and remediation technologies. An independent and academic 20-member Research Board makes the funding and research direction decisions to ensure the intellectual quality, effectiveness and academic independence of the GoMRI research. All research data, findings and publications will be made publicly available. The program was established through a $500 million financial commitment from BP. For more information, visit https://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.
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