SESYNC’s Graduate Program Plugs in but Keeps the Connection Human: Here’s how your team can do the same

COVID-19, and the uncertainty it has brought to the world, has shaken up how many groups are able to work together—including SESYNC’s Graduate Pursuits. Despite the disruptions that teams have faced, Dr. Nicole Motzer, Assistant Director for Interdisciplinary Science, says SESYNC’s grad teams are continuing to move forward at all stages of their Pursuits—albeit in new ways.

While members of teams in the later stages of their research, having already completed their in-person meetings, haven’t seen too many changes, Motzer shared that other groups are having to replace in-person meetings with online gatherings. For example, many teams in the mid-stages of their research have had to move their final meetings online, and SESYNC’s fifth cohort has been forced to move its leaders’ wrap-up meeting online, as well. Meanwhile, the newest cohort of teams has had to launch their projects remotely. Participants in SESYNC’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in S-E Synthesis workshop, which was cancelled in March, will now engage in a virtual multi-week training series that will also be paired with a call for virtual Graduate Pursuit project proposals.

An illustration of four people meeting virtually on a laptop screen

But, despite these hurdles and months of rapid adaptation, Motzer says the teams are continuing to accomplish great things, such as submitting papers to peer-reviewed journals, hosting virtual conference sessions on their Pursuits’ research, and leveraging their experience at SESYNC to get prestigious positions after graduate school. One grad leader is even using her experience at SESYNC to lead another interdisciplinary team-based project focused on creating an entertaining and informative video series on climate change, working with a team of comedians, journalists, songwriters, and environmental scientists.

She added, “The biggest success is that all teams have continued to persevere throughout this massive disruption, even after losing important opportunities to finalize their synthesis projects face-to-face.” 

To help graduate teams stay connected and stay on course with their research these past few months, the Graduate Program has been offering teams additional check-ins and support to aid them in bridging the digital divide between group members. Because while many of the teams have been unable to meet in person, as Motzer puts it—“The Center’s engagement with teams does not stop when they stop coming to SESYNC.”

In addition to launching the email help desk, Motzer and Dr. Jonathan Kramer, SESYNC’s Director for Interdisciplinary Science and co-lead of the Graduate Program, have been working closely with teams and providing guidance on how to foster collaboration and forge strong relationships without occupying the same physical space. 

Below, Motzer passes on some of that advice, sharing her recommendations for how to keep your team members connected and your collaboration moving—even when apart:

  • Remember your “why.” – Sitting at a desk and being glued to a computer screen (as is the case with most synthesis research) can feel unproductive or out of touch, especially when surrounded by political, economic, environmental, and social turmoil. Remembering your core motivation—your “why” for conducting the team-based research you do—is a powerful tool for reminding you and your collaborators that you are in fact making a difference that is meaningful to you, or that the project is something worth dedicating your over-scheduled time and energy to. If your project has veered off course from your “why” or others’, it’s time to re-route.  
  • Set goals for each meeting. – The importance of assigning clear, achievable goals to every virtual meeting, and ideally every session or section of a virtual gathering, cannot be overstated. There needs to be a shared purpose that focuses conversation, makes efficient use of work time, and elevates synthesis opportunities, just as there would need to be for in-person work. Use the co-creation of shared meeting goals as an opportunity to generate buy-in from your team and ensure all voices are being heard.  
  • Have concrete deliverables and requests, but calibrate your asks appropriately. – Being as specific as possible can be beneficial in an era that can feel nebulous and when many of us have been stripped of our organizing routines. Agreeing on concrete deliverables for everyone is essential to keep engagement high and accountability in check. That said, design your asks with kindness and compassion, and only after open communication. We are all living through unprecedented times but are not all affected by the current crises equally. 
  • Set distinct milestones. – Demarcated project and personal milestones, however small, can serve as helpful indicators that the team is making progress. Milestones can be especially important in the early stages of a project when individual buy-in might be less and when group momentum is challenged by a lack of tangible results. 
  • Allocate enough time. – Give your team enough time to do the virtual work. When collaborating from home, you don’t leave behind distractions or commitments as much as you would when traveling to SESYNC. Being online for long stretches is exhausting but carving out too little time won’t do you any favors either. Two to three hours is a sweet spot of getting into the project groove, freeing the mind of residual distractions, and achieving meaningful interaction and progress while still remaining flexible enough to accommodate differing personal responsibilities, living circumstances, and time zones. 
    An illustration of people celebrating virtually
  • Don’t leave the team out of “team science.” – Don’t forget the importance of maintaining a balance of both scientific content AND social connection. It can be tempting to jump straight to business, but we don’t have to cut out interpersonal connections just because we aren’t physically in the same space. If we do, the social bonds of trust and a unified team culture will take a hit and so will the science. Consider making time for a virtual happy hour at the end of the day where you can catch up as human beings or sharing breakfast together before any “shop talk” enters the scene.
  • Use activities to connect and insert levity. – Think about how you can adapt your favorite icebreakers to an online environment and do so again and again in a meeting. Making time for several fun or “non-science” activities throughout the day can be great for alleviating any tension that has built up or just giving your brain a break. The best ones tend to be those that insert a bit of humor, mix digital media with analog, and/or foster a sense of community and belonging. For example: 
    • Have team members use the annotation tool in Zoom to draw their response to a prompt. (e.g., “Draw the food you miss eating most while stuck in quarantine.”) I saw this go over really well with an international group of graduate students who are spread across three different countries.
    • Adopt Priya Parker’s suggestion (author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters) to bring a personalized offering to your meeting. This can be whatever your like, from a comic that made you laugh, to a personal memory, to a song, or a recipe in heavy rotation. Doing so helps build community and connect us during what can be a very isolating time. More than that, this act of offering is an opportunity to tell your team members more about you and what you value, and can illuminate how you might weave together your individual priorities and needs to collectively achieve synthesis in your research.