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Elisabeth Pain , ,

Getting a Young Scientists’ Association off the Ground

If you want to start an organization aimed at encouraging and supporting young scientists, get senior scientists involved. This was one of the key messages of a presentation by Jenny Baeseman of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) at this weekend’s Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Turin, Italy.

APECS was born out of the involvement of young scientists in the 2007-2008 International Polar Year (IPY), a story told on Science Careers in April 2008. Among the goals of the polar year “was to expand the polar community,” said David Carlson of the International Polar Year program office in the United Kingdom. “There was nothing in the system preventing young scientists to come with ideas and say, ‘we want to be the next generation of polar scientists.'” And that’s effectively what the founders of APECS did.

penguins_h1.jpgAPECS started out with no budget but a lot of enthusiasm and the support of the IPY program office, Baeseman said. Its early members used free tools such as Google Groups and Skype to organize themselves and start creating an active community of young polar scientists. But “from the very beginning, we decided that it is great that young people get together… but we don’t want to be by ourselves,” Baeseman said. “We wanted to learn from senior researchers … to continue the continuum of knowledge.”

In 2008, APECS signed a memorandum of understanding with two large international polar organizations — the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) and the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) — that gave them recognition as the primary organization for young polar researchers. This “gave us institutional recognition, even though we were just was a Google Group and Web site,” Baeseman said.

APECS soon started organizing career development activities at other organizations’ meetings, inviting senior polar researchers to sit on discussion panels and share their experience. “And then we all go for a beer and it gets nice and lively,” Baeseman said. APECS also runs discussion forums and technical workshops in which “we invite experts to come and give advice… Nothing that we do is by ourselves,” she said. It is “always with senior researchers.”

APECS runs a mentorship program with a database of senior scientists interested in mentoring younger researchers. This makes it easier to find the right connections if, say, you’re a young scientist in Norway who wants to go and work in Germany, Baeseman said. “You know they are willing to support you,” she said. The organization also hosts virtual poster sessions on their Web site, which they like to think of as “the Facebook of polar science,” Baeseman said. 

Today APECS is tied into several international organizations, gets involved in science policy, organizes its own conferences, and runs education and outreach activities. “When you’re a grad student you’re trained to do the science, you’re not trained to be a scientist,” Baeseman said. “We help to provide the training to be a scientist.”

While Baeseman credits the success of APECS to dedicated volunteers, support from established organizations, and support from senior researchers devoted to promoting young researchers, Baeseman’s own dedication to the organization belongs on that list. When Science Careers first met Baeseman at a 2007 conference in Lindau, Germany, she was a tenure-track faculty member at Kent State University. “I decided that the tenure track wasn’t for me,” she said.

The opportunity came up to go to the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States in Fairbanks, Alaska, to continue to develop APECS, so she took it. Toward the end of that time, the association put out a call to individual countries to host an international office for APECS. Norway stepped forward, and Baeseman now lives there and works full time as director of APECS.

She continues to do some research for a National Science Foundation grant she received while she was in Fairbanks; she published a research paper and wrote a book chapter this year. “I think it’s important that when you start to make this transition from a research career to something else that you try to keep a foot in the research door.”

At the same time, her devotion to APECS and its mission has provided her with a new career: “You have to find your talent and figure out where you can help science the most, and for me I think it’s the administration level, helping scientists make science happen.”

-by Elisabeth Pain and Kate Travis