Science inreach: why building connections as scientists matters

An interview with Lou Woodley, director of the Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement
Martina G. Efeyini
April 24, 2020

Now more than ever, building connections is essential. Are you interested in using your scientific training to engage communities of scientists or strengthen connections among them? A community engagement management career could be for you.

We commonly hear scientists discussing strategies for science outreach, but it’s less common to hear discussions of "inreach."

I interviewed Lou Woodley to find out what it's like to foster such engagement for a living. 

"More than ever, we’re seeing the importance of collaboration in science. Scientific community engagement managers play a key role in unlocking the potential of collaborative work — online and off." – Lou Woodley

From biochemist to community engagement manager

Woodley started her career working in a laboratory. She earned her master's in biochemistry from the University of Cambridge and master's in pre-mRNA splicing from the University of Leicester in England and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany.

While in graduate school, she co-founded a popular science magazine, BlueSci, and served as its managing editor for several years. This involved developing training programs, organizing events and connecting people across departments and colleges within the university system. It also showed her that a career with a 360-degree perspective was a better fit for her.

Today, Woodley is the director of the Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement, a research and training center supporting professionals in the emerging field of scientific community engagement.

“CSSCE exists, at least in part, to support these scientists in their community-building careers,” Woodley said.

But what exactly is community engagement?

“Community engagement is ‘inreach,’" Woodley said. "Community-engagement managers are essentially performing the function of human infrastructure. Science inreach has the goal of connecting scientists to other scientists — as compared to science outreach, which has the goal of connecting scientists to the public.”

Inreach supports successful scientific collaboration in multiple ways:

  • Helping groups to identify and articulate shared interests.
  • Setting norms for working together.
  • Ensuring that all members of a community feel included and are able to participate.

Woodley's work at CSCCE

The CSCCE supports workers in inreach roles at a variety of scientific organizations, and Woodley is the center's de facto community-engagement manager.

She supports the CSCCE community by providing regular programming using Slack, developing working groups, and creating and editing content to share on the website.

CSCCE hosts monthly community calls (with speakers and discussions) to explore topics of interest to scientific community managers. In any given week, Woodley could be setting up welcome calls with new members, recruiting members and organizing programming.

In addition, she conducts strategic planning, handles behind-the-scenes work (such as survey analysis and metrics) and determines what sorts of content, programming and activities are needed.

Finding a community engagement job

Community-engagement managers are found at all sorts of organizations.

“Sometimes it means working within a research context," such as an academic research institution, Woodley said. "Other times, (an) organization that provides infrastructure for scholarly communications, such as Crossref or ORCID, will have a community manager to convene members around the provision of tools, training or standard setting that scientists need to get their work done.”

These engagement managers also are found at professional associations, which are increasingly encouraging their members to build communities on online platforms.

CSCCE fellowship program

The CSCCE offers the Community Engagement Fellowship Program each year.

It bring about 20 scientific community-engagement managers together as a cohort for a year of training activities. Participants come from various scientific backgrounds as well as from business, marketing and communications.

During their cohort year, they have three in-person trainings (in January, June and December) and receive training online in between.

When looking for these sorts of jobs, you should use these keywords: community manager, membership officer and network engagement manager.

For many scientific community-engagement roles, having a scientific background can be helpful. "Exposure to the lab environment and seeing how science works … can build a level of legitimacy,” Woodley said.

Woodley and colleagues have determined that scientific community managers typically have skills in five core competencies: communications, technical, program management, program development and interpersonal.

“The interpersonal competency is especially important because it involves skills such as moderating, facilitating and integrating different perspectives — all essential for collaborative work,” Woodley said.

In 2016, the CSCCE conducted the State of Scientific Community Management Survey, which surveyed about 100 people in community-engagement roles to better understand the evolving career landscape. The results showed that two-thirds of the people in these roles have Ph.D.s, and yet the majority taught themselves community engagement while on the job.

“We have all been on teams and have seen conflict with collaborative projects," Woodley said. "People are busy, and misunderstandings can happen. We (community-engagement managers) create opportunities where people are able to contribute because we made engagement seem easy. The CSCCE exists to make the case that these roles can and should be institutionalized."

So, what does the future of community engagement look like?

"As a center, we want to see these community-engagement management roles increasingly recognized and funded so that it will be the norm that everyone who wants to set up a large-scale collaboration would automatically have a line item in their budget for a community-engagement manager," Woodley said. "This doesn’t currently happen by default."

Martina G. Efeyini

Martina G. Efeyini is a toxicologist, science communicator and advocate for the next generation of scientists. She works at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, CURE Scholars Program and is a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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