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Sushi and science: creating a student community of minds

Early on in graduate school, Bethany Huot witnessed an experience that changed her outlook on science. She knew a post doc in her lab who had been struggling with his path for some time. He was slated to present at a science conference but had not been very motivated during his preparations. Bethany made the trip with him – her first time at a conference – and observed as he shared knowledge and learned from peers and experts in the field. In a matter of days, his depression morphed itself into a zeal to return to the bench, a dramatic transformation that Bethany would not soon forget.

Bethany strikes you as the person with a strong drive to help people. She lights up when one mentions community building. And with a bubbling personality and seemingly endless energy, she seems to always find a way to bring people together around inspiring ideas.

It all started during a trip following high school to a Vietnamese agriculture training center run by one person. “He was using his knowledge base to teach sustainable practices to farmers. I thought he was making an immediate and real impact on the world, and I wanted to do that too.” The plan was to start out in biology at Western Michigan University before transferring to MSU for agriculture, but an inspirational mentor got her hooked on molecular biology.  Today, she is a PhD candidate in Cell and Molecular Biology studying plant stress in the Sheng Yang He and Beronda Montgomery labs.

Graduate school sucked Bethany into research, a time consuming and lonely endeavor similar to what that post doc had experienced. Bethany kept wondering why he had had to travel states away to have his aha moment when there were buildings full of experts around him. Why didn’t people talk more together, where they were?

Building a community of minds

Her realization was that science, especially the joyful variety, is done in supportive and active communities. So she resolved to create what she calls a “Community of Minds” at MSU where students could learn from and help each other out.

Bethany’s first attempts to recreate the conference experience at MSU were pie nights and coffee hours, but neither worked.  However, over the next couple of years, two conferences, a 2013 Keystone and a 2014 MPMI, helped shape her ideas for fostering local science communication and excitement. In preparing for the second conference, “I figured I would be relatively close to the Weigel and Sainsbury labs, so I could use the opportunity to visit them. I think they all assumed I was shopping for a post doc position, but I just wanted to talk to cool people doing cool science.  Isn’t that part of what science is about, the community?”  Bethany found this experience extremely invigorating. “The best part was talking with so many people about the science they were doing and discovering I had ideas I could contribute.  I found myself asking again, ‘Why don’t we do this all the time with our local peers and professors?’”

Back in the US, she decided to rebrand her efforts into The Pub Club, an informal, weekly gathering of PRL, Plant Biology and PSM labs that do similar research.  “The ‘Pub’ refers to the publications we are all striving for and also the day when scientists regularly talked about their work at the local pub over a couple of beers.”

PI Q&A Day.
By Bethany Huot

Bethany says that the formula that finally worked has four essential ingredients: 

  1. Consistency:  They meet each Friday at 4 PM in MPS, fulfilling the group’s mission, “to be available to each member when their schedule allows and their needs require.”
  2. Student-led and PI approved:  A group like this needs to be student driven. However, Bethany adds, without enthusiastic support and participation from PIs, students and post docs will not feel encouraged to participate.
  3. Snacks: “Not the scruffy store bought cookies.  Yummy snacks.  People come when there is food, no question.”  There is no alcohol involved at The Pub Club, but Bethany has found that has not been necessary. Members have gotten very creative, such as Koichi, a post doc in the Howe lab who set up a make-your-own sushi bar, complete with a demo and protocol!
  4. Networking: “This is where we bring the conference home. Every month, we invite a guest speaker to join what we call our Mug Club. We’ve had 18 so far.  I am happy to say I have never had a single person turn down a request to share their insights with us.  In fact, some like HHMI’s Carl Rhodes have returned on their own to visit our Friday gathering.” 

Since beginning in the fall of 2014, The Pub Club has averaged 10-20 members and 3-5 participating PIs. Weekly gatherings start with 5-minute science updates, a suggestion by her PI, Sheng Yang He.  “Now, new undergrads, grad students and post docs joining a Pub Club lab have a way of making connections, learning about resources for science news, hearing about stories they missed and sharing the stories they found interesting.” 

Following science updates, each week takes a different path.  This last semester included topics like creating an elevator pitch, “chalk talks” and research presentations on their new AQUOS BOARD. “The key here is to keep it small and informal.  This helps make everyone feel comfortable to ask questions or share comments.”  Additionally, each semester tackles a RCR topic (ethics related to research) and the recurring PI Q&A day. The last, a group favorite, has members submitting questions in a box, and at the end of the semester, these are randomly drawn so the PIs take turns discussing them with the group.  

Image of Koichi preparing to teach how to make Sushi
Koichi about to unleash his sushi skills.
By Bethany Huot

Meeting on the edge of science

Soon after the group started to take off, Bethany realized the need for an online platform to store and share resources.  “We had so many great resources and advice being shared at the meetings we really needed a way to compile them in an organized fashion for current and future use.  We now have a website, called The Pub Club Hub, containing weekly meeting summaries, pictures, posts, RSS feeds for jobs and science journals, pages of resources on teaching, job hunting, bioinformatics and more. We also have a weekly newsletter called, ‘Keeping Up With The Hub.’”

One major change in the group’s growth came unexpectedly. Beronda Montgomery made a guest appearance tackling goal-setting, expectations, and the creating of individual definitions of success, which inspired an increased focus on career development topics.  “Beronda’s advice resonated and resulted in a series of meetings related to helping us identify our passions and goals, identifying the needed skills to accomplish them, and recognizing opportunities to acquire and hone these skills.” Those have included leadership, organization, planning, budgeting, mentoring, and teaching skills, among others.

Another milestone of sorts was triggered by Shin-Han Shiu’s visit to The Pub Club in the fall of 2014.  His advice on acquiring basic computational skills without becoming full-fledged bioinformaticians led to the creation of Python Group, a spin-off group with a bioinformatics focus. In spirit with The Pub Club’s philosophy, activities are not bound by topic. “Last semester, an undergraduate student in the Friesen lab, Katie Wozniak, took on the opportunity and the responsibility to coordinate Python Group.  As a result, she was able to gain both computational and leadership/organizational skills.”  Katie has told Bethany this was noticed and mentioned by many who interviewed her for graduate school.

The Pub Club also now listens to future employers and helps each other with what they affectionately call “The Void” employment opportunities present.  “It’s about post doc and graduate training, acquiring these communication and networking skills that would produce better science and better scientists.  Just picture that group of students attending their annual meetings, getting there already excited with a list of people to meet and questions to ask!  They would be the most sought after job applicants.”

Image of Bethany with her PI Sheng Yang He at the Christmas Party
Bethany with Sheng Yang He at the Christmas party.
Photo courtesy of Bethany Huot

Successes and challenges

The Pub Club has been a huge success, thanks in large part to the support and participation of PIs. It continues to develop, including another significant milestone this past May, when the “Community of Minds” went global with a Skype mini-conference with the famous Weigel World in Germany.

However, the greatest challenge has been convincing people that such a venture is not extracurricular, but a vital component of scientific training and development. “There is so much pressure to be ‘at your bench’ it is really difficult to convince students to invest in anything else.  Now, more than ever, we as scientists must be able to communicate our science effectively to diverse audiences.  The Pub Club gives us a weekly opportunity to practice this and other very important skills.”

Bethany is graduating later this year. She hopes someone will take charge in her stead, and she has received some inquiries from interested students.  Whatever happens, Bethany is taking the “Community of Minds” with her.  “The Pub Club has helped me clarify my personal passion: helping people discover who they are, what they want and then helping them to achieve those goals by providing encouragement and resources to do so. It’s about gaining independence, and it’s much different than working towards a job title that may not even be there after graduation.”

A far cry from that struggling, isolated post doc.


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