Spearheaded by two postdoctoral researchers who thought something was missing from scientific training, a new program launched this semester to help postdocs and graduate students get the support and tools they need to succeed, sponsored by QB3 and Berkeley’s Visiting Scholar and Postdoc Affairs (VSPA) office.
“Thriving in Science,” a campus-wide professional development initiative, is the brainchild of Troy Lionberger and Diane Wiener, two Berkeley researchers who wanted to help postdocs and grad students do more to help each other through the rough patches that are inevitable during scientific training, and come out the other end as more engaged, resilient, and creative scientists.
A September 3 lecture on peer support by faculty member Judith Klinman ushered in the program, and drew a crowd of about 140 to Stanley Hall. Now the program’s structured monthly readings, peer support groups, lectures, and networking mixers get started. The program targets trainees in the physical or life sciences, but all Berkeley grad students or postdocs are welcome to attend activities. Participants are encouraged to register and complete a survey so Lionberger and Wiener can evaluate the program’s effectiveness. SF State psychology professor Kevin Eschleman helped them to design the rigorous survey instrument to determine the impact of the program on the professional development of those who participate. The survey-based program evaluation and implementation of formal peer support are unique features of “Thriving in Science” that set the effort apart from other professional development programs.
Lionberger, an HHMI research associate in Carlos Bustamante’s lab, and Wiener, a postdoc in Susan Marqusee’s lab, know firsthand the challenges typically encountered by science Ph.D.s. during their training. “Diane and I came out of the same lab in graduate school at the University of Michigan, and we both had very similar, rather traumatic, experiences that led us to seek therapy, and neither of us realized that we were far from being alone in having that experience,” recalls Lionberger. “We both felt quite isolated, and only found out about helpful resources after a crisis; these resources would have been much more helpful had we known about them before encountering difficult challenges in graduate school. That was the first tip-off that there needed to be better support networks in place at universities.”
Particular issues unique to science trainees include the pressure to publish, the changing workforce outlook for Ph.D.s, increasing competition for jobs, and more personal matters like anxiety, fear of failure, and stress around relationships.
Once at Berkeley as a postdoc, Lionberger joined the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health, in part at the encouragement of then Dean of the Graduate Division Andrew Szeri. “In conversations that transpired at these meetings, it became increasingly obvious to me that this a much bigger issue than just whether or not a few people might be predisposed to problems, but ultimately this relates to whether or not students receive the quality of training that they came here to receive in the first place,” says Lionberger.
For example, students experiencing stress and mental health issues might take leaves of absence from graduate school, potentially delaying graduation, or seek help only once they’re in crisis mode, when intervention may be much more challenging. The ramifications can be serious for the trainee, their advisers and PIs, and the University as a whole.
With encouragement from committee members David Presti, a senior lecturer in neurobiology, and the late Heino Nitche, a professor of chemistry, Lionberger considered the options for taking action on these issues. Based on his exposure to talks by Weizmann Institute of Science biologist Uri Alon, a lecture by Judith Klinman, and several faculty papers on university peer groups, Lionberger decided the most promising first step, one with a track record of success, would be to stimulate peer support groups on campus.
In addition to helping trainees find peer support, the new program will expose scientists to the research conducted by nonscientists about the nature of the scientific training environment. “There are psychologists and economists who study these sorts of cohorts, but ultimately the findings aren’t trickling into the scientific community,” says Lionberger, “so we will invite the researchers who are doing these studies to engage in conversation with the scientists, either through readings or lectures.”
Now Lionberger and Wiener are juggling the new initiative as well as their own scientific careers. Once the program is off the ground, participants should help to keep the momentum going.
When asked if the juggling act is a challenge, Wiener responds: “We have friends who are in our labs, and we see them struggling, and at a certain point you have to say ‘enough’s enough,’ and do something,” says Wiener. “Once we started amassing resources and contacting other people, everybody seemed really excited to talk with us and try to help. I think a lot of people would like to have peer support, but they just don’t know how to get started.”