Building an Early-Career Researcher Community from the Ground Up

Building an Early-Career Researcher Community from the Ground Up

As researchers begin their careers, it is helpful for them to have a network of peers with whom they can collaborate and develop the direction of their future research. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has limited networking opportunities for such scientists. In response to these limitations, an international group of early-career scientists working within the peatlands research community has developed its own network—the Peatland Early Career Researcher Action Team (PEAT)—to virtually forge connections and share insights.

Peatlands are found around the world, from the tropics to the Arctic, making the small community of scientists studying them global by proxy. “The peat community is small…but the work we do is huge on a global scale in terms of [studying] the carbon cycle,” said Scott Davidson, one of the coleaders of PEAT and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo, Canada.

PEAT developed after Clarice Perryman, one of the coleaders of PEAT and a Ph.D. student at the University of New Hampshire, reached out to her early-career colleagues in the United States, Canada, and Sweden to convene an eLightning session on 8 December at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2020. Despite being from different subdisciplines, continents, and time zones, the group found it fairly easy to connect with each other virtually. They decided to expand these connections into a larger early-career researcher (ECR) community. “We felt like it was something that the peat community wanted,” said Sophie Wilkinson, one of the coleaders of PEAT and postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. She followed up by sharing that there were more than 40 people from six countries at PEAT’s last Zoom-based social.

A 5 by 7 grid of individual boxes with young men and women’s faces shown in each box from their Zoom screens
Early-career researchers attend PEAT’s first Zoom social in May 2020. Credit: Scott Davidson

PEAT’s focus is to develop a network that combines community building with professional development and opportunities to be involved in the larger scientific community. The organization’s first initiative, outside of Zoom-based social events, was connecting the largely untapped pool of early-career reviewers with journal editors through a reviewer directory. “Everyone needs papers reviewed,” Wilkinson said, “and yet there are still ECRs that are not on these lists who want the chance to review something.”

PEAT leaders stressed that following the global pandemic, they will continue holding virtual social events to make sure that their new connections are sustained. They also hope to develop a seminar series to encourage early-career researchers to present their work to their community’s global audience.

Interdisciplinary Endeavor

PEAT is open to undergraduates through early-career faculty in relevant fields such as biogeoscience and hydrology. Recognizing that issues of importance to peatlands are cross-disciplinary in nature, the group also invites social scientists in fields including paleoarchaeology, history, and economics. Ultimately, PEAT leaders said, the group wants the future of peatlands research to happen in an open, interdisciplinary, and highly connected way. “The balance between [being] productive in some way but also friendly and accessible to people is kind of key for us,” Davidson said.

When asked about the importance of ECR-initiated communities to the future of science, Sarah Shakil said, “It is beneficial to have these organizations. I think this really helps facilitate relationship-building early on.” Shakil is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alberta and was involved with the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists Council from 2018 to 2020.

“One of the great things about the PEAT ECR team from an outsider’s point of view is that people are already working on projects,” Shakil added. The PEAT community is a multidisciplinary “way to bridge people’s work so you can get a whole system understanding of what is going on.”

—Hadley McIntosh Marcek (@waterwings88), Science Writer

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