Professional in Residence interview with Arne Bakker: Pathways in Community-Centered Science

Arne Bakker, PhD, is the director of Meetings and Community for Science at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The QB3-Berkeley Professionals in Residence program will be joined by Bakker on Friday, December 8th. UC Berkeley and LBL trainees may register for Bakker’s events here. Bakker spoke with graduate student Santiago Yori Restrepo about his journey in science and scientific community-building.

Santi Yori Restrepo: Could you tell us about your role as director of Meetings and Community for Science at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI)?

Arne Bakker: I’ve been at CZI for over six years now; I joined science team within its first year. As the director of Meetings and Community, I lead a team of five that brings together the grantees we fund in science with a goal to build community and collaborative research in the areas that we fund. My team and I run about 20 meetings a year where we bring scientists from different areas together for scientific conferences. These meetings can be anywhere from two to five days and include anywhere from 25 people to 350 people.

We believe that reaching our mission as an organization—to help scientists cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century— and our short-term goal of unlocking the mysteries of the cell, can only be done by changing the culture of science in a way that focuses on open science, transparent research sharing, and collaborative, interdisciplinary research. A big part of that is bringing the people that we fund together—that’s what my team does. In addition to that, we also have a capacity building program where we offer training opportunities. For individual researchers this is centered around leadership and mentorship. For organizations that we fund that’s centered around running organizations as well as training around changing the way science might be more open or, project management, grant writing and such. A big part of our vision at CZI is not just focusing on the projects that we fund, but also on the people that do the projects, including staff scientists, graduate students, and postdocs.

SYR: Could you walk us through that career trajectory and how it led to your current position?

AB: I’m from the Netherlands originally. I did my PhD in Amsterdam at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, in tumor immunology. I’ve always been really intrigued by the adaptive immune response. How does a body recognize that something is going wrong and how do cells signal that something is going wrong in an individual cell? My PhD asked those questions in a tumor, cancer-based research environment. My postdoc at Berkeley was more focused on an autoimmune model, but my research questions always were: How does cell signaling work? How does the body know something is wrong or “not self” as part of the immune response?

A headshot of Arne Bakker on a gray background with the QB3-Berkeley logo.
Arne Bakker is joining the Professionals in Residence program on December 8th. Photo courtesy of Arne Bakker.

Throughout my life, I’ve been interested in community organizing. During my PhD, I got involved with a group of friends who had started a foundation focused around improving the image of young scientists in society. For example, how do we combat that idea of a scientist as someone in a lab coat with goggles or glasses? One of the ways we did that was running a science festival that focused on making science something you can do on a Friday night. Right now, there are a lot of museums and science events that you can attend in the evening. In San Francisco, Cal Academy or the Exploratorium open up Thursday nights; that really didn’t exist 15-20 years ago, so we were really thinking about similar events at that time. After my PhD, I took a break from research and I was the first hire of this foundation, running a science festival in Amsterdam and really thinking about how to make science something you can do on a Friday night as part of the nightlife. That was really fun, but I realized that I missed the lab and I wanted to go back to research, so that’s what led me to my postdoc at Berkeley in the lab of Nilabh Shastri.

Towards the end of my postdoc, I was interested in returning to my organizing roots. So, for two years, as a volunteer, I got connected with people organizing the Bay Area Science Festival organizing Creatures of the Night Life. At the same time, grad students at Berkeley started this conference called Beyond Academia, organizing a showcase of what you can do with a PhD if you’re not interested in becoming faculty. I joined Beyond Academia as a volunteer and the following year I joined the organizing committee. Sam Castaneda, who ran the postdoc office, noticed that I was involved in Beyond Academia and asked if I wanted to be more involved. The Berkeley Postdoc Association (BPA) was looking for a liaison for career professional development, so I joined the BPA. Less than a month later, Berkeley started this task force for career professional development for graduate students and postdocs. I was asked to be the postdoc representative and we spent several months touring the country and benchmarking across other universities to understand if Berkeley was doing the right thing to provide the right career development opportunities for graduate studies and postdocs. At that time my postdoc was coming to an end and I was looking for other opportunities.

One of my biggest career revelations was that I really care about science, and I think science is a great space to work in, but what I care the most about is scientists. I realized that I don’t necessarily have the drive to move my own research forward every single day, but I have a very big drive to help scientists move their research forward. For me, that drive translated into career development for scientists.

After working for the Berkeley Postdoc Association as a visiting scholar for a few months, I was hired by the Stanford career center. Stanford Career Education was going through a big transition at the time, the head of the center was thinking about how to make career services more relational than transactional—more transformative. I worked there for several years and got the opportunity to build out a team that worked on PhD and postdoc career development and before I left, I was Assistant Dean of Career Communities. We worked with faculty members in different departments, developed workshops, trainings, even courses at Stanford to help PhD students and postdocs with their career decisions. That could be anywhere from how to apply for faculty positions to how to go into management consulting. We developed a science communication course for people that wanted to go into science communication or journalism. I was super happy, I had a five-year plan, I had just started managing that team and leading it, and then CZI called.

I was fortunate: I never applied to CZI; I was recruited because they were looking for someone to run their meetings program who understood science and the culture of science. I’m a scientist, so that tracked. Someone who can organize meetings and events. I clearly had done that. Someone who had this interest in a community-first approach for people-focused meetings, which is what I was doing at Stanford. So, it was the three things I’d done in my career at a relatively new philanthropic organization, and that was super exciting and also completely unexpected. I changed careers again for the third time and joined CZI six years ago.

SYR: How would you compare the role at Stanford with your current position at CZI?

AB: I think there’s similarities, and I think it’s interesting from a personal note. One of the things that was really fulfilling at Stanford as a career coach—that I still miss—is that I had engagement with grad students and postdocs. Over time, as people would come to my workshops or the courses I participated in, we built powerful connections with the researchers on campus and then helped them with their career decisions. I was there as a resource where they could get information, but also as a part of that journey in figuring out what they want to do after leaving Stanford and then empowering them to do it. It’s a really rewarding scenario, when someone has this career decision and you’re a part of that process. It’s one of the most powerful things that I’ve felt in my career.

Now, at CZI my impact is more around fields of research or a community of people rather than individuals. That’s a big change that I had to say “yes” to when I got the opportunity to join CZI—and I don’t have regrets. It is really satisfying to see a successful new collaboration blossom because of the meeting environment you created.

SYR: You’re clearly very passionate about mentoring. Is mentorship part of your role at CZI?

AB: At CZI, one of our values is to “stay close to the work,” so we try to embody that in everything we do. For me, that means I still get to teach one class a year at Stanford on how to apply for faculty positions. Due to the pandemic, we moved that course into a virtual version in 2020 and realized that it worked, so for three years now we’ve also offered that same type of course to the CZI community. That’s a weeklong bootcamp on how to apply for faculty positions. Having those two weeks a year where I get to go back and be, either in-person or virtually, in front of the classroom is super rewarding.

As for my team, I like to think I’m a very engaged manager who wants to set up the team for success and having that type of culture at work is important to me. I also see it when providing our training opportunities, even if I don’t run them and someone on my team does. Building that space where we provide training to researchers, even without that personal connection with participants, just knowing that these opportunities are there is very satisfying to me. I feel very privileged to be able to do the work that I do.

Arne Bakker currently works at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as director of Meetings and Community for Science. He has extensive experience in career development and scientific community-building, most recently at Stanford University as assistant dean of career education. He has a PhD in tumor immunology from the Netherlands Cancer Institute and did his postdoctoral studies at UC Berkeley.

Santi Yori Restrepo is a PhD candidate in Molecular and Cell Biology/Chemical Biology at UC Berkeley in the lab of Andreas Martin where he builds tools to understand what proteins are being degraded by the cell. He is passionate about mentoring and science communication, and has worked for the Berkeley Science Review as a designer and as art director.