Breaking professional isolation at PUIs by building your own research network

At predominantly undergraduate institutions (PUIs) you are the representative expert of your field, even within your department. In this installment, Dr. Nicholas Ball talks about building a local Professional Development Network (PDN) during those early days of academic isolation… and the results were well-worth the effort!


7d8af0ea-c201-496f-a9e4aa1236dd3c71We’ve all been there. It’s the middle of the night – you slowly emerge from deep sleep and your brain suddenly starts thinking about research. What was that mysterious product? Why isn’t that reaction working? Before you know it, a research idea pops into your head! You furiously reach for your phone in the dark and start making notes. After reading over your new ideas, you then begin to ponder who could you share this with? At predominantly undergraduate institutions (PUIs) you are the representative expert of your field, even within your department. So who do you turn to?

I wanted to expand my network of chemists from PUIs, particularly colleagues who I could turn to for research support.

These were the questions I asked myself at the end of my second year. I wanted to expand my network of chemists from PUIs, particularly colleagues who I could turn to for research support. Of course, I had some friends at institutions across the country who had been invaluable in providing feedback on my research. However, it was imperative for me as a faculty member at a consortium of liberal art colleges,  to expand that circle and network with a local group of scholars. Luckily, I was not the only chemist in town.

The genesis of a professional network

Recently, the academic Deans at the Claremont Colleges unveiled one-year Professional Development Grants (PDNs) to facilitate collaboration across the consortium. I immediately seized on this opportunity and began looking for a group of colleagues with whom, I could collaborate. I sent a couple of e-mails to see if any folks were interested in applying for the grant. Within a few hours, I received some enthusiastic replies expressing interest. Funny enough,  it turned out I wasn’t the only faculty member seeking out this type of community. A few additional exchanges led to the development of the Inorganic Professional Development Network. Our group consisted of five professors and included: Adam Johnson (Harvey Mudd), Matt Sazinsky (Pomona), Nancy Williams (Keck Science), Kathy Van Heuvelen (Harvey Mudd) and myself. We also invited Chantal Stieber of Cal Poly-Pomona to join as well. The membership across our group brought a variety of  chemistry expertise ranging from organometallic catalysis, bioinorganic chemistry, to metalloprotein crystallography. In addition to each of our respective disciplines, our group included faculty at different stages of our career, ranging from the early tenure-track, to full professor.

Funny enough,  it turned out I wasn’t the only faculty member seeking out this type of community.

connectingpeople-data.jpgIn early Spring of 2017, our network agreed to meet at a dining hall at Claremont Graduate University to develop a framework for our proposal. Our conversations centered around the reality that as a professor at a PUI, there is an inextricable connection of our research to our teaching and students. As a result, few opportunities exist to engage in scholarly conversations about our research. Each of us noted that these opportunities become even more challenging, the further we progressed from our graduate school experience. Over lunch, we quickly reached a consensus that we wanted a network where we could share research ideas, grant proposals, and discuss models of undergraduate research. We also agreed that our network should focus more on  our own professional development and less so, on our students. We recognized that a disproportionate amount of our research efforts were already geared towards the support and training of our students, an aspect of our careers that each of us love. However, we recognized the need for a “a space” that helped each us focus on our own research trajectory. Additionally, we recognized that each of us knew very little about one another’s  research, technical expertise, and available equipment. These points alone, illustrated an enormous opportunity to help the  consortium of colleges achieve their fullest potential. Our network was driven to change this immediately.

…we wanted a network where we could share research ideas, grant proposals, and discuss models of undergraduate research

Our PDN had three objectives: 1) hold monthly writing clinics where we either provided feedback on preliminary data, grant proposals or drafts of manuscripts,  or dedicated time and  space for writing; 2) host “super group” meetings where faculty present their research to each other and our undergraduate research students; 3) invite a leading chemist from an out-of-network PUI who runs a robust research program – this outside expert  could offer insight on how to maintain an active research program amidst a heavy teaching load. Over the following weeks, we refined our proposal, submitted it, and were delighted that is was funded. The next step was putting this proposal into practice!

Write, Discuss, inspire, rewrite

how-to-write-right-general-writing-tips-for-everyoneWhether it is a paper or grant, all faculty are desperate for time and space to write., Thus, it was important that our group create a space that  promote writing. In just one year, , our PDN sponsored six writing workshops where we read and provided feedback on each other’s work. Each of us found the time spent to be invaluable in advancing our respective research agenda. At one of the writing workshops, held in the summer of 2017, we engaged each other in a one-day writing retreat. We reserved office space off campus (WeWork and Regus are great, rentable meeting spaces to get work done) and had eight blissful hours of writing. We were able to draft full manuscripts, outlines of proposal that would otherwise take the entire summer. This was turning out to be the best idea ever! The productivity of these writing clinics were clear as our network of six faculty submitted  four grants (two funded thus far), published three research articles,, and prepared four manuscripts and a book!

Feeling super

…our PDN developed another aim focused on hosting three “super group” meetings over the summer…The meetings have resulted in multiple, tangible benefits including the chance for us as PIs to learn more about network membership research efforts, along with the opportunity to model professional presentations and scholarly discussions for our students.

As a faculty member at a PUI, I often learn about my colleague’s research through student presentations. Given each of our respective disciplines, I rarely encounter opportunities to hear my colleagues present their own research in a professional setting.  To address this, our PDN developed another aim focused on hosting three “super group” meetings over the summer. At each meeting, the six of us gathered with over 25 undergraduate research students while  two members of the PDN delivered 30-minute presentations of their research. The meetings have resulted in multiple, tangible benefits including the chance for us as PIs to learn more about network membership research efforts, along with the opportunity to model professional presentations and scholarly discussions for our students. These presentations were truly inspiring! Not only did I learn more about my colleague’s research, I was able to observe the impact each was making in their respective fields.

Seeing your future

The final aspect of our PDN proposal was to invite a more senior, inorganic chemist (from a PUI) to provide insight and tools on how to build and sustain a strong research program. For our first iteration, we invited Dr. Rachel Austin, the Diana T. and P. Roy Vagelos Professor of Chemistry and Department Chair at Barnard College. With grants from the NIH, NSF, HHMI, DOE, and Dreyfus Foundation (to name a few!) and membership on editorial board of journals, Dr. Austin  represents the gold standard of a productive and respected scholar in chemistry. Just this past week, Dr. Austin visited our campus. In addition to giving an outstanding research talk, each network member met with her to gain additional insight on her models of success.

My experience with our professional development network over the past year has truly been transformative. I have an exceptional group of scholars from whom I can receive honest, informative feedback on my research

Plugging into the network

My experience with our professional development network over the past year has truly been transformative. I have an exceptional group of scholars from whom I can receive honest, informative feedback on my research, including those research ideas that wake me up in the middle of the night! I no longer have to wait for an upcoming conference or meeting to gain feedback – I can just walk up the street to do so!

Here is a collage of my PDN…now go out and build yours!

 


nicholas-ballDr. Nicholas D. Ball is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Pomona College in Claremont, CA where he does research in organometallic chemistry and catalysis with undergraduates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.