Creating Collaborative Science Leaders

The conference cut-down. It’s an occupational hazard of being a scientist. It’s not unusual for someone to raise their hand and poke holes in your ideas, tell you your experiments can’t be done or, worse, that they’ve already been done by someone else. It’s that kind of environment that stifles creativity and slows down innovation.

The people behind the Global Young Academy (GYA) are out to make systemic change in science by empowering early career researchers who support one another — as opposed to tearing one another down. Incoming GYA member Menattallah Elserafy, Ph.D., says her experience at the virtual 2020 New Member Workshop was different than the usual scientific meeting: “GYA members have great ambition, but are willing to put collaboration between members before competition.”

Elserafy is an Assistant Professor at the Center for Genomics in Zewail City of Science and Technology, Egypt. After the workshop, Elserafy joined GYA’s Women in Science Working Group during the organization’s virtual Annual General Meeting, which was held two weeks later. She is currently a co-lead of the working group. “I am really excited to be part of GYA as the membership allows me to fulfill my social responsibilities as a scientist.”

That sense of social responsibility is what makes GYA unique. “GYA is an ambitious organisation of early to mid-career scientists who care deeply about the world,” says Anina Rich, Ph.D. Rich was a member of GYA’s executive committee and is a Professor of Cognitive Science and Director of the Perception in Action Research Centre (PARC) at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. She was in charge of organizing this year’s GYA’s New Member Workshop.

Going Virtual

The GYA welcomed its 2020 cohort of members amid the COVID-19 pandemic in May, hosting a four-day virtual meeting in which the new members could meet one another, learn new collaborative techniques and find out what it means to be part of the GYA. Normally, new members attend a workshop just before the GYA’s Annual General Meeting, a working meeting in which new ideas are created and teams are formed to implement innovative solutions. This year’s meeting had been planned for Kolkata, India. Instead, the GYA leadership turned to KI and its sister company, Inclusive Innovation, to ensure new members could still reap the benefits of joining the organisation and the GYA could continue to fulfill its mission.

The GYA’s 200 members come from different countries, backgrounds and different disciplines of academia. “Our selection processes are carefully designed to minimise the biases and to maximise diversity,” Rich says. New members are selected based on excellence in their specific field and their commitment to using their research beyond academia. “This selection criterion of service results in a unique and very special academy of dedicated passionate people who want to make the world a better place.” Rich says. The membership term of five years ensures that the GYA remains young, active, and innovative, she adds.

The GYA Vibe

Rich says the challenge for this year’s meeting was to capture the ‘vibe’ of the GYA: “It’s the most inclusive and positive organization I know. But, I also wanted to capture the intensity and the potential that exists for making systemic changes in science by being a part of this unique organization.”

In addition to this year’s virtual meeting, KI and II ran the in-person New Member Meetings in 2018 and 2019. These meetings are designed to provide new members with information about what it means to be a GYA member, demonstrate some of the processes and tools the organization uses for working together collaboratively and allow for networking opportunities.

“I was able to connect with a huge number of new GYA members and previous members. I learned a lot of very useful tools during the workshop. I felt that everyone had a friendly space to express their opinion and contribute,”  says incoming GYA member Mai Tolba, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Faculty of Pharmacy, Ain Shams University in Egypt. “Even though it was a virtual event, it was designed in an innovative way and enabled us to network and to engage on projects and tasks together using the different collaborative platforms.”

Socially Responsible Science

Rich, who recently completed her 5-year GYA term, says that despite the challenges of accommodating different time zones by having two cohorts, the event exceeded her expectations. “It was fantastic to hear the new members in breakout groups commenting on the very things that have been highlighted over the years as being truly special to the GYA: the diversity, the benefit from different perspectives, the mind-blowing effect of having successful researchers from all over the world come together discussing how to solve problems.” Seeing members be as enthusiastic online as in person reassured Rich that the new cohort was entering the GYA with the same spirit as previous cohorts.

Giving Back

Now that she is an alumna, Rich says she gained a lot of confidence by participating in the GYA. “I also gained knowledge in terms of learning about different disciplines, different cultures, different ways of thinking about things. It opened my eyes to aspects of my privilege that I didn’t know about and unintended consequences of well-intentioned actions.” Just as she has been transformed by the experience, Rich says she was also able to encourage change with fellow GYA members. For example, a male member mentioned to her that there were no women in leadership positions in his department. Rich presented him with data showing the benefits of having women in leadership roles. “We really built our relationship on mutual respect and he actually took the data and used it to convince his colleagues to eventually hire two women. That’s transformational.”

Rich feels strongly about continuing to support the current and future incoming members. “The GYA is a microcosm of the best world we could be, because everybody in it is there not just to be excellent in their careers, but to give something back.”