Aidan Budd is a former researcher whose love of community-focused work led him from an EMBL PhD to project management work in bioinformatics teaching, service, and research with a focus on community building. He’s previously described to the EMBL alumni team how this initial transition occurred. He’s since continued in this area, initially joining The Earlham Institute as Senior Community and Business Development Manager (explained here), and now as Node Coordinator for ELIXIR-UK. Here we talk to him in more depth about his current role at ELIXIR-UK and what advice he’d give to young scientists interested in working with scientific communities.
According to Aidan, working in roles related to scientific community provide a rewarding career for people with some organisational abilities, good communication skills, and a strong interest in people and organisations. He particularly enjoys using his engineering mindset to design new processes, which he sees as a little like designing experiments but with the added challenge of the human dimension – such as finding consensus between stakeholders with different needs and interests.
You can find the full interview below.
If you are interested in this area, you can also:
- carry out your own “informational interviews” with alumni working in related roles (often found under the broader umbrella of science administration or project management).
- For EMBL fellows, please see the alumni directory.
- read Aidan’s PLOS Biology article “A Quick Guide for Building a Successful Bioinformatics Community” and the ScienceCareers article “Building community as a career”.
You’re project manager with a strong focus on community, can you tell us a bit more about what this means by explaining what your current role involves?
My current role is at ELIXIR-UK: to give a little background, ELIXIR is a distributed life science data research infrastructure across Europe, which is involved in managing and safeguarding the large volumes of data generated by public life science research. People involved in ELIXIR are typically working with this data or the computing infrastructure, tools, interoperability (the ability to link bits of data and tools to each other), or training that help bioinformaticians and life-scientists work with this data. It provides contexts – and some funding – so that people can collaborate and build collective strategies and unified sets of standards. ELIXIR itself is organized as consortium of counties, each with a ‘node’ that is itself a consortium of national stakeholders. This requires a lot of coordination work – for instance, legal agreements, running events, governance.
As a coordinator for the UK ELIXIR node, my role is a lot about communicating with our 18 consortia members, responding appropriately and communicating with the ELIXIR Hub (the central organisation, located at Hinxton in the UK, that coordinates between the different national nodes). ELIXIR-UK is young-ish – although the activities have been going on for a while, the formal agreement that describes how we as a consortium are supposed to interact with each other was only established in November 2017. My role therefore also involves helping establish processes not specified in this agreement – for example, how you would add a new member – as well as things like a mission statement. The processes, and the communication, needs to be clear and transparent in order to build trust and a strong community. I’m also involved in organising meetings & teleconferences and, for example, coordinating formal ELIXIR-UK responses to government consultations in areas related to our work.
Do you feel that you are still using the scientific background?
Having been in science and having been a scientist isn’t essential for most of my work – I work with an amazing assistant who doesn’t have such a background and there’s lots of stuff I do that she could do. However, there are things – often to do with strategy – where having a science background is needed. Having an understanding of how research institutes work, the ecosystem of activities related to this, and having an existing network in relevant areas of research does makes my life easier and I can get more done as I result of that. An engineering mindset also helps when answering questions like “How can we design a set of processes that will be seen as fair and appropriate, and how do we define what is appropriate?” I’m really enjoying making processes: it’s a little like designing an experiment -you need to think about your aims and what you need to control for – but it also has an added human dimension as you have to build consensus between a group of people.
What else makes the role enjoyable?
The greatest pleasure comes from the fact that the group of people around me are great. Even when we are having problems, it’s usually solution focused. I like that a lot. I have huge respect and admiration for the person I report to, and I have a really good rapport with the assistant I work directly with. I also generally love the pleasure of building good strong trusting relationships with people.
And what are the main challenges of working in such a role?
Probably the biggest challenge is hitting the right balance to communicate effectively – sharing the right pieces of information – and not sharing too much (which can be frustrating) or too little (so they don’t feel involved). Another challenge, is to balance the interests and needs of different people. With 18 stakeholders, the complexity here is significant.
And what other skills and character traits do you think were needed for you to succeed in this area?
I think it helps to be interested in people and organisations. There is a certain amount of networking required for such coordinating roles. As I am genuinely interested in getting to know people this is something I don’t find hard and people respond positively to me as they can tell that I simply enjoy getting to know people. I also find it fascinating to try and understand why organisations are doing what they are doing, and what interventions one could maybe make – based on the understanding / ideas about why things are happening – to make your organisation more effective. I think that really helps in my current role as it’s about helping an organisation that is growing rather than fully developed.
A certain amount of project management / organisational skills are also required, as there’s lots of different things going on at the same time.
Do you miss being a researcher?
There is nothing I miss about being a researcher, though I’m glad there are other people doing this with enthusiasm. I have different contexts to explore my curiosity now, different kinds of freedom. The space between doing work, seeing impact and people appreciating it is much shorter now, and it seems less impacted by the unpredictability of the world – by cells getting infected or whatever. There’s also so much more talking and collaboration in my current role. I find it less lonely and am also less affected by imposter syndrome than when I was a scientist.
As highlighted in a recent ScienceCareers article you featured in, this is a growing area, what advice would you have for community focused scientists who consider a career in this area?
I see more and more people doing this kind of work. One context in which you can see what people who have been recognised as doing that type of work is the AAAS Community Engagement Fellow Programme. It has just recruited its second cohort of fellows – around 20 people who are doing science community building work across the world. However, the positions are still relatively rare, and there is quite a tendency for these posts to be hired from people who have been working within the organisation already as this brings a depth of understanding to the structures – be that formal or political – that is very helpful for this work. So far, all the jobs I’ve ended up with in this area have been because someone who I have worked with previously has recognized that I care about building communities and am okay at doing this kind of work. So, I don’t think it’s something where you say “I want to be a community manager” and you apply for jobs. I suspect it’s more about starting by building this into existing roles – it can add a whole lot of value if you are making community activities part of your work, and doing this may then lead to later opportunities.
How is work-life balance in this role and how do you manage that?
Work comes in spurts – it is very deadline driven. I travel quite a lot so there also needs to be quite a lot of flexibility about when I work. I balance my energy levels by making sure that I don’t work so hard when it’s not so busy. It also helps that I work from home. It’s probably very boss dependent, but for my boss it’s about making sure the work is delivered on time and not exactly when or where it is done.
Is there anything that surprised you or you think is a misconception about this area?
I was pleasantly surprised to see that more and more senior people acknowledge that this is work that needs to be done and that they are trying to find people to do it that are a good fit in terms of skills and personality. I find it good that there is an acknowledgement that there is a set of personal skills needed, and that these are not necessarily the ones that make you are a good researcher.
There is a set of issues around demonstrating impact that that I hadn’t appreciated. I think one thing that makes community management work difficult is that it’s quite hard to find metrics that demonstrate the value of your work. That can be quite frustrating. Difficulty finding good metrics also affects the work of ELIXIR – for example, some of our work is involved in interoperability – for individual tools you can measure the use – but how do you measure the impact of interoperability?
And finally, is there anything else you want to mention?
When it comes to talking, and being published, about “how I got where I am today”, I care a lot about acknowledging the impact of my manifold privilege – I believe the factor that had the largest impact on any “success” I’ve had is that I was born a white cisgender allosexual alloromantic heterosexual abled middle-class second-generation-university man to affluent parents in a country with good access to opportunities. I’m keen to highlight this to others like me, who often don’t see this – I see this as a duty I have, given all this privilege.
EMBL fellows and staff can also contact Aidan and other alumni working in similar roles via the EMBL alumni directory. This can be used to seek career advice / informal mentoring. Please see our article on informational interviews for ideas on how to make the most of such opportunities.
Photo Credit: Tom Grace / Chlöe Cross