LettersNextGen Voices: Ask a Peer Mentor

Forging remote relationships

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Science  02 Apr 2021:
Vol. 372, Issue 6537, pp. 24-26
DOI: 10.1126/science.abi4726

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ILLUSTRATION: HANNAH AGOSTA

As we enter year 2 of the COVID-19 pandemic, many scientists continue to work remotely, including those starting new jobs. We called on young scientists to submit advice for the researcher below, who grapples with the challenges of working remotely in a new lab. Responses included reflective questions, stories about personal experiences, and advice. Read a selection of the peer mentors' thoughts here. Follow NextGen Voices on Twitter with hashtag #NextGenSci. Read previous NextGen Voices survey results at https://science.sciencemag.org/collection/nextgen-voices. —Jennifer Sills

Dear NextGen VOICES peer mentors,

I am excited to be joining a new lab for my first postdoc. It has been a huge relief to get a job despite the even-tougher-than-usual job market. I have moved to a new city and am settling in, but because of the pandemic almost everyone is working remotely most of the time and all meetings are virtual. With limited in-person opportunities for collaboration and none for socializing, I am having trouble forging relationships with my new colleagues. This isolation is taking its toll on the scientific exchange I need for my project to succeed as well as my comfort as part of the team. How can I integrate myself into the lab environment?

Sincerely, New on the Quaran-team

Be proactive

Have you found a mentor? In my experience, integrating in a post-PhD world can be very difficult because you are the new person in a group of people whose lives are already settled. Try asking a senior member of the lab if they are willing to be your mentor and to help you navigate the new environment. Schedule a meeting as soon as possible to discuss the best way to succeed in the lab. (Don't wait for them to invite you—they are busy people!) I also suggest that you identify the most socially engaged person in meetings and ask that person for a private meeting to introduce yourself. The beating heart of the lab always has time for everyone and will know who is best to talk to about work-related issues.

Elvira Sojli School of Banking and Finance, University of New South Wales, Kensington, NSW 2052, Australia. Twitter: @esojli

Have you considered that your arrival is an opportunity for other group members? Your unique set of skills and scientific background are important to the group. Why don't you organize [together with your principal investigator (PI), if appropriate] a round of talks or team-building events that are followed by spontaneous chats? Encourage people to attend the talks and create a friendly, safe, and noncompetitive environment. I have found that initiating group get-togethers fosters interaction not only on a professional level but also a personal one.

Luca Soattin Division of Cardiovascular Sciences, School of Medical Sciences, Faculty of Biology, Medicine, and Health, The University of Manchester, Manchester, M13 9WU, UK. Email: luca.soattin{at}manchester.ac.uk

Do you think there might be characteristics of this lab environment other than the imposed isolation that are preventing you from integrating successfully? Although the isolation you describe differs from my experience joining a lab before the pandemic, I faced roadblocks in being relatively young and inexperienced. It was intimidating, at first, to be thrust into a world where I had to learn on the spot and meet the high expectations of the existing lab workflow. These challenges created a relationship disconnect much like the one you describe. Just as during normal times, a healthy conversation can spark a healthy relationship, so begin there. Schedule virtual meetings with your colleagues to provide project updates and ask for any assistance you need. By taking initiative, you invite them to form stronger connections with you, scientifically and socially.

Shaan Patel Vagelos Molecular Life Science Program, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA. Email: spatel20{at}sas.upenn.edu

Are you comfortable being flexible and trying new approaches? I recently applied to medical residency training programs. In normal times, I would have had the opportunity to meet would-be colleagues in person. Instead, networking took place online. Although I was concerned that it would be difficult to tell whether I fit in, I was pleasantly surprised by how committed program directors and residents were to chatting online. In the end, I probably met more people than if I had been limited by travel. I suggest being proactive and adaptable. Conversations might not happen organically, but you can still reach out to your lab members for a quick Zoom call to discuss a question. Lab socials may no longer take place at the local bar, but there are increasingly fun online games that have been designed for video calls. My research group has a channel on our Slack account dedicated to sharing updates about our hobbies, such as a recent meal we made or the view from our bike ride. Despite the pandemic, we still need to collaborate, so we must be resilient in how we meet this moment.

Cody Lo Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V5Z 1M9, Canada. Twitter: @cody_lo

Show interest in others' work

Have you considered approaching a colleague to start a new project that builds on their research agenda? Your current priority may be to have scientific exchanges to complete your own projects, but in my experience, providing meaningful insights into a colleague's work is an effective approach for establishing yourself as a valuable member of the team. After carefully reading a colleague's work, which is ideally closely related to your own, have an in-depth discussion with them on the subject. Connecting their work with your own can open the door to receiving valuable knowledge and feedback from your more experienced peer. Your insights into their research can also pave the way for future collaborations. Moreover, this discussion will help you forge a social connection and demonstrate your collegiality, ultimately making you more comfortable.

Samuel Nathan Kirshner School of Information Systems and Technology Management, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia. Email: s.kirshner{at}unsw.edu.au

Have you invited others to share their thoughts with you? I'm a senior student in my lab group, and I wasn't sure how to connect with a new student. One day, after a lab meeting, he emailed me to follow up on something I had said that resonated with him. This made me feel like we had a shared experience that we could build on. I would suggest trying this strategy to find common ground with your new colleagues.

Theresa B. Oehmke Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA. Twitter: @t_oehmke

Is fear your primary obstacle? As a young researcher in a new lab, I found myself self-conscious about my lack of experience and knowledge. I worried that my colleagues didn't truly consider me part of the lab, and I struggled to make connections. What helped me overcome this fear was vocalizing my curiosity. I talked to the postdoc about the lab's publications, asked the grad students about their projects, and emailed the PI about new project ideas. In every good lab, researchers are eager to share their work. When I expressed my desire to learn, the lab welcomed me and my questions without any hesitation.

Junwon Kim Vagelos Molecular Life Science Program, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA. Email: jkim0312{at}sas.upenn.edu

Start small

Have you tried working on a small project together? I have noticed that the postdocs who have joined us during the pandemic integrated fairly well by handling projects such as online webinars, which gave us the opportunity to exchange ideas and work as a group. If there is no ongoing project, you could organize one. It does not need to be something grand and fancy, just a small endeavor that you think would bring out the core strengths of your team. This will not only bring everyone closer but also highlight to others that you are passionate about what you do.

Khor Waiho Higher Institution Centre of Excellence, Institute of Tropical Aquaculture and Fisheries, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, Kuala Nerus, Terengganu, 21030, Malaysia. Email: waiho{at}umt.edu.my

Have you tried asking for help? Even a question about logistics or policies will open the door to communication. Colleagues will likely be happy to lend a hand, and once you start talking, you will be able to learn about your colleagues' academic experience, interesting news in the group, recent research progress, and academic difficulties. This will help you develop stronger relationships with other lab members.

Jian Zhang School of Public Administration, Central South University, Changsha, Hunan, 410075, China. Email: zhangjian3954{at}126.com

Do you get along well with anyone on the team in particular? I've managed big teams of people and noticed that someone who tries to connect with everyone tends not to make deep relationships with anyone. If you're on a big team, it can be overwhelming; if you're on a small team, it can seem like the group is already formed and has no place for you. I suggest that you pick just one person with whom you think you can connect. If you find someone who is willing to have one-to-one chats online, then you can build on that. If you two can find things to do together, others will want to join in. That way you can grow your connections. It may seem slow at first, but it will be worthwhile. Of course, picking someone who is going to be on the team for a while is a good idea, too, as people move on alarmingly quickly!

Timothy L. Easun School of Chemistry, Cardiff University, Cardiff, CF10 3AT, UK. Twitter: @TimEasun

Network creatively

Have you invited your new colleagues to informal, remote, one-on-one meetings to find out about each person's project, skills, and specific roles in the lab? These meetings could be the beginning of new collaborations and meaningful friendships. Schedule video calls with a variety of people beyond your lab as well, such as other PIs in your new Institute, researchers working in facilities that you may use in the future, and students happy to profit from your experience. If you don't know them, drop them an email and ask if they want to meet. Don't be surprised if you find out that they are also willing to talk about science and to discuss future projects with you.

Ana Neves-Costa Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência, 2780-156 Oeiras, Portugal. Email: ananevescostaana{at}gmail.com

Have you tried joining virtual meet-ups tailored to your goals? My lab is a computational biology group that worked semi-remotely even before the pandemic, so it took a long time for me to make connections. Try signing up for department or postdoc-specific email listservs that advertise virtual social opportunities such as coffee hours. There are often only a few people there, which I think makes for more meaningful conversations. To help with productivity, members of my lab started scheduling virtual co-working sessions. At set times during the week, we meet on Zoom and chat for a few minutes about what we're planning to work on. Then we mute ourselves and work together for a couple of hours. It's a great way to have some accountability and structure in the day while staying connected with co-workers.

Beth Adamowicz Department of Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55401–2605, USA. Twitter: @BethA_z

Have you thought about socializing outside of your laboratory group? When I moved across the country to start my postdoc, I knew no one at my new institution. Through becoming involved in peer mentoring groups (we meet via Zoom), international societies, and community service organizations, I built a community that I can interact with on a social basis. Now is not a time to mourn the loss of working with lab mates but rather an opportunity to engage with the broader community in ways you haven't before.

Mark Martin Jensen Department of Surgery, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA 02114, USA. Twitter: @MMJensen3

Have you connected with your new colleagues on social media? When I was the freshman in the lab, I found myself in a similar situation. I read my colleagues' social media posts to learn what we had in common. Try to find someone who shares a hobby of yours. If possible with social distancing, invite that person to accompany you (maybe you could play chess online or take a hike outside). If practicing the hobby is inadvisable, at least you have a topic you can use to start a conversation, which could in turn make it easier to break the ice with the others.

Wagner Eduardo Richter Department of Chemical Engineering, Universidade Tecnológica Federal do Paraná, Ponta Grossa, Paraná, Brazil. Email: richter{at}utfpr.edu.br

Bond through shared experience

Have you acknowledged the ways in which the pandemic is exacerbating the feelings of isolation and uncertainty that always come with forging connections with new colleagues? After my project mentor left the lab, I also had to navigate change in addition to pandemic restrictions. It was important to remind myself that any perceived detachment, difficulty in collaboration, or feelings of isolation were not a result of a personal deficit or failure but rather the consequences of unprecedented challenges. All labs are experiencing a struggle with collaboration and socialization. Ask if the lab has a messaging platform to facilitate casual and quick communication, suggest virtual bonding events, and contact colleagues directly to learn more about their projects or offer and request advice. You could even use the mutual experiences of pandemic life as a starting point to forge individual relationships.

Renée Louane Barbosa Vagelos Molecular Life Science Program, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA. Email: reneeb22{at}sas.upenn.edu

Have you considered that there are most likely others in your lab in the same situation as you? I have noticed that whenever individuals feel isolated, there are always other people who do as well. This was especially true this past semester, when my freshman fall was spent at home rather than on campus. Instead of a classroom full of people, I was met with dozens of faceless names on Zoom. However, I realized that this experience was universal and though making connections was more difficult, it was worthwhile. I suggest embracing the discomfort that meeting people in a work setting always entails. It is important to remember that you are not a singular island in the ocean of the pandemic, but instead part of an archipelago. Find those around you and begin the difficult task of making connections. In video calls about a project, greet each person by name and ask them about their day. These interactions may seem minor, but they are how workplace relationships begin. Don't be afraid to reach out to people individually for a video call or socially distanced coffee. Everyone is doing their best to get through this time and will appreciate any effort you make.

Laura Baeyens Vagelos Molecular Life Science Program, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA. Email: lbaeyens{at}sas.upenn.edu

Shared common experiences are the foundation of friendships and relationships. Although the challenges you face seem to be stifling your ability to build relationships, the experiences you are sharing with your colleagues right now are a powerful bonding opportunity. Years from now, you'll always have a “Remember when…” story to recall and share with one another. How will you be remembered and what will you be remembered for? Make it known to your colleagues that you are there for them. Volunteer to assist someone who is falling behind. Actively look for ways to make the lives of others in the lab better. Your colleagues will come to see you as being the person who remained optimistic, positive, reliable, and willing to step up in a moment of need. You'll build goodwill, social capital, and meaningful relationships along the way.

Bradley J. Cardinal School of Biological and Population Health Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331, USA. Email: brad.cardinal{at}oregonstate.edu

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