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VAI Voice

The official blog of Van Andel Institute
8 Jun 2020

Early career scientists adapt to working remotely by taking science virtual

In the past few months, the way we live and work has drastically changed. For many scientists, this includes a temporary transition away from hands-on work in the lab to more virtual work, such as data analysis. Among this group were thousands of postdoctoral fellows, early career scientists who have earned their doctoral degrees but are completing additional scientific training under the mentorship of a principal investigator — much like a medical school residency.

Michaela Johnson, Ph.D.

“When the stay-at-home orders in Michigan were put into place, we began holding regular Zoom meetings with our lab to discuss our research and to stay connected,” said Michaela Johnson, Ph.D., a VAI postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Neurogenerative Science. “Our principal investigator, Dr. Patrik Brundin, suggested that we could expand that connected mentality to other postdocs in neurodegenerative research — that this could be a great time to create a supportive space for early career scientists to present their findings while they don’t have access to their labs.”

Johnson and fellow postdoc Liza Bergkvist, Ph.D., embraced the need to adapt, and in collaboration with The Cure Parkinson’s Trust and World Parkinson Coalition, established the Parkinson Postdoc Program seminar series, or 3P Seminars. Launched in early April, the interactive 3P Seminars provide early career researchers focused on neurodegenerative disease a way to keep the intellectual part of research alive by connecting with others in their field and providing a space for them to practice presenting their work to fellow scientists.

Every Tuesday and Thursday in April, two presenters were given the virtual floor, with 30 minutes allotted for each presenter: 20 minutes for the presentation and 10 minutes for questions. The live 3P Seminars are open only to research related to neurodegeneration, but anyone can watch the recorded versions through 3P Seminars’ YouTube channel.

Beginning in June, 3P Seminars will be held once a month, on the last Thursday of the month. Future iterations of the seminars, according to Bergkvist, could include workshops, career advice sessions or other interactive structures. She and Johnson agreed that they’d love to continue hosting the virtual seminars for as long as they can find researchers willing to present.

Liza Bergkvist, Ph.D.

“There isn’t this type of space — for early career researchers, by early career researchers — anywhere else,” Bergkvist said. “Our goal from the beginning was to create a program that feels like friends discussing research and gives us all a chance to practice presenting our research to a scientifically minded group.”

All kinds of presentations related to neurodegeneration are encouraged, including review of full articles ready for publication, research in progress and unexpected data on which a researcher would appreciate feedback. When the webinars were first launched, it quickly became clear that other early career researchers were excited for a virtual space like 3P — postdocs and Ph.D. students interested in presenting reached out to Johnson and Bergkvist after hearing about the new, interactive seminars. Presenters have come from a variety of global research organizations, including Oxford University, McGill University and many other renowned institutions.

Most presenters suggested other researchers who could present work complementary to theirs, often resulting in themed presentations. Recent themed 3P webinars included the role of the olfactory system in Parkinson’s disease; multiple system atrophy, a rapidly moving neurodegenerative disease with similarities to Parkinson’s; and even a special session focused on career advice for postdocs from three principal investigators at different stages in their careers.

“We’ve been speaking with past presenters to get them involved in running the seminars, so it will truly be a community-based effort,” Johnson said. “We want it to be more sustainable over time, so we can keep holding these webinars even when we are all back in our labs. It’s been an incredible work of collaboration, and a fantastic chance to hone our skills and learn from our colleagues across organizations.”

Drs. Johnson and Bergkvist would like to especially thank Eros Bresolin, Helen Matthews and Dr. Simon Stott of The Cure Parkinson’s Trust for their incredible contributions to 3P Seminars.