This month, we’re asking all community engagement professionals within science to complete our state of scientific community management survey. The survey’s intended to determine the variety of community-building roles that exist within science, and is the first activity of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows program. We’ll be sharing a report of the survey results once we’ve analyzed them.
But just who are the scientific community engagement professionals? To help answer that question we’re running a series of Q&As with people in existing community-building roles. If any of these stories resonate, please do take 15 minutes to complete the survey! The more input we have to the survey, the more detailed our view of the overall landscape will be.
Today we’re featuring Giovanna Guerrero-Medina:
Thank you for agreeing to speak with us about your work as a scientific community engagement manager! Could you introduce yourself to our readers? Tell us a little bit about yourself and the community you manage.
I am the Executive Director of Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR), a community for anyone with an interest in science and Puerto Rico that leverages its members’ expertise, stories and commitment to improve the quality of science, engineering, math and technology (STEM) education and increase access and participation in STEM careers.
People who identify with our mission are free to open a public profile and tell the world about their scientific interests, achievements, and trajectory. Once connected they can contribute blogs and articles for publication in the general media, be interviewed for profiles and podcasts, collaborate with outreach projects, sign up for free professional development events, and more.
We have over 7,500 members and most of them are scientists and other STEM professionals including postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students, and science educators. Our membership are in Puerto Rico, at more than 185 institutions of higher learning in the US, and in over 50 countries. You can read and learn more about our organization in this PLoS Biology article.
I’ve been involved with the organization for about nine years (it’s been in existence for ten), first as a volunteer in a number of increasing responsibilities, and since 2012 as the Executive Director.
What was your path to community management? Were you trained as a scientist or did you come by another route?
I trained as a neurobiologist and spent many days as a PhD student watching fluorescent maggots (Drosophila larvae) under a microscope, making electrophysiology recordings. This afforded me a lot of “NPR time”, which in 2004-2006 meant listening to a lot of stories about the politicizing of science. So after grad school I switched to a career in science policy. I immediately became interested in ways to support and enhance the capacity of the research enterprise to innovate, train diverse scientists, and impact society and local communities. By becoming involved in CienciaPR, I found a way to put my newfound expertise in science policy and research capacity building to the service of Puerto Rico, where I’m from.
When I joined CienciaPR, I was excited at the prospect of helping to give voice, visibility, and influence to a group otherwise considered to be underrepresented in science. I started out as CienciaPR’s newsletter editor and took this responsibility seriously, looking for ways to increase the attractiveness and functionality of this communication tool. Progressively, I became more adept and involved with our web platform so in 2011, when we received funding to upgrade our website, I took on the challenge of managing the overhaul. This entailed seeking feedback about new functionalities, publishing an RFP, selecting and overseeing the vendor, and eventually recruiting members of the community to beta test it. Around the time of the new website launch I accepted the position of Executive Director.
Managing CienciaPR has been a thrilling and challenging ride and as someone who was not trained in non-profit administration (or communications, or web development) there was a big learning curve. But this was facilitated by my post-PhD work in science policy at the NIH and then in scientific administration at a non-profit research institute.
Can you describe the key responsibilities of your role? What does an average week look like for you at the moment?
We are still a very small operation so almost all things you can imagine an organization needs to do are either directed or performed by me and/or by our Vice-Director, Mónica Feliú-Mójer!
At the moment, the things occupying most of my time are leading some of our high-profile programs, including the Yale Ciencia Academy—a program that leverages the CienciaPR community to provide graduate students access to mentoring, professional development and outreach experiences—planning for a new strategic plan, fundraising and running a crowd funding campaign. But on a weekly basis I also work a lot with our volunteer operations team and manage institutional partnerships and collaborations, at Yale University where I’m based, and with many academic and non-profit partners in Puerto Rico. I also lead the organization’s outreach to its stakeholders.
Do you share the task of managing your community with anyone else – and do you belong to a team or wider group working on the project?
Yes! CienciaPR would not have grown and had as much impact if we didn’t have a wonderful group of dedicated and creative volunteers helping to suggest and take-on new programs, keep the content of the CienciaPR website fresh and dynamic, and manage our social media and newsletter outreach to our members and audience. This is a group of ~15 scientists, including undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, faculty members and STEM professionals, some of whom have worked with CienciaPR from its beginnings.
With respect to community management activities, we currently have two volunteer program coordinators, several social media managers, a blogs manager, and other volunteers who oversee our newsletters, community-sourced calendar of events, and our science and Puerto Rico news repository. Two amazing science communicators (Dr. Wilson González-Espada and our Vice-Director) mediate our collaborations with the press and serve as editors for science articles contributed by our members.
We are currently looking for a Volunteer Community Engagement Manager to help oversee new member outreach, establish an annual profile update campaign, and develop communications that showcase all the tools and resources available to CienciaPR members.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a scientific community manager? Are there ways in which your role could be made easier – such as professional development opportunities or something else?
I wish I had had a better understanding at the outset of the different roles that can help support a community and how staffing (volunteer or otherwise) can help you fill those needs. Sample job descriptions would have been great! As it was, I think we’ve reached this understanding and can now put in place fundraising efforts to expand our full-time team and thus our programs and impact. But it would have been way easier if we had had models from which to learn and other organizations with whom to share insights.
That is one reason why the Trellis community and in particular the Communities for Science Communication (C4Sci) group has been so great. I was not even aware of the large number of science communities that are out there! I feel like there are a lot of new things to be learned and perhaps discovered together from this group.
I am particularly interested in exploring community assessment and evaluation ideas. It would be great to have better metrics to document interactions and show the impact that a scientific community can have.
And zooming out a little, why do you think community engagement important to science? How have you seen active management improve your community?
When I was sitting alone in that dark room doing my experiments, listening to NPR, and getting upset at the state of science funding, I often felt the urge to complain, comment or commiserate with someone else. Then, when I started working in science policy, I longed for a way to apply my newfound knowledge and skills to my community of origin. Finding CienciaPR felt like the skies had opened up and a solution had fallen on my lap. I now had a platform from which to connect with others for the things I cared about: science and Puerto Rico.
I can speak from personal experience when I say that as scientists we often feel isolated, disengaged, and with limited impact, circumscribed to the halls of academia. Communities can help us find a way to reach out from our individual labs and offices and collectively make a difference. Giving the Puerto Rican scientific community a place to “congregate” has allowed us to change the state of science communications in Puerto Rico. We’ve also helped increase knowledge about the range of exciting science and technology careers and helped bright and dedicated young scientists move ahead with their careers. These are things that could not have been achieved through individual efforts.