Meet a scientific community manager: Malin Sandström

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 12 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 Malin Sandström:

Malin Sandstrom headshot
Malin works for INCF, an international non-profit organization devoted to advancing the field of neuroinformatics, in a role that mixes community engagement with communication and project management. She has a PhD in computational neuroscience and more than a decade’s experience of science blogging. You can find her on Twitter: @msandstr.

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 work for an international non-profit organization called INCF, which aims to coordinate and support neuroinformatics research and researchers around the world. Neuroinformatics is a pretty new field, where informatics and computer science are used to enable neuroscience research and research data management of a type and scale that was previously impossible. The core community is rather small and spread out, so an important part of our job is to make sure they can find each other, stay up to date on what others are doing, and work together on solutions that are compatible. Our network stretches across four continents, and consists of neuroscience researchers, tool developers, publishers, funders, and students. I’m our “Community Engagement Officer”, and the first person in that position. We basically made that title up from scratch, to fit what I was meant to be doing, when we created the role.

 

What was your path to community management? Were you trained as a scientist or did you come by another route?

Calling it a ‘path’ makes it seem undeservedly organized and planned… In reality it was more a series of ‘sounds interesting, I wanna do THAT!’ that landed me somewhere I definitely didn’t foresee from the start.

I started out with an education in engineering physics, and then went on to a PhD in computational neuroscience. I did a lot of science communication on the side during my studies. During the first half of my PhD studies I also was responsible for part of the management of a very diverse working group in an EU project of the “Network of Excellence” type – these are aimed at integrating scientific community and starting new collaborations – and later participated in another EU project of the same type. The researchers involved came from very different fields, and in was interesting to see what worked well in getting them together. I had no idea at the time, but it was very useful experience for the type of work I am doing now.

I joined INCF part-time during my last year of PhD studies (while also finishing writing a popular science book), then went full-time the week after defending my thesis. First I did only communications work, then also some program officer work, and then merged those together with new responsibilities into the role I currently have.

 

Can you describe the key responsibilities of your role? What does an average week look like for you at the moment?

For the past three years I have been the designated point of contact for our member countries, been doing a lot of the behind-the-scenes work involved in being a mentor organization in Google Summer of Code (GSoC), been formally responsible for keeping up with developments in our computational neuroscience/modeling community, and been one of the 3-4 person strong team that does all of INCF’s communications, both digital and print. Plus a lot of smaller things here and there. Since I have one foot on our scientific activities side and one foot on the communications side I also try to act as the communications ‘glue’ between different parts of our activities. It is easy for different teams to get out of synch when everyone is busy.

One of the bigger concrete things I do is organize two scientific/networking meetings for our member country representatives, each year. I am in fact typing this on the plane, on my way to Japan for one of these meetings, organized together with the Japanese Node of INCF.

Otherwise an average week right now has a ton of emails, some writing, minutes here and there spent on social media and Trellis, a few team meetings in different constellations in person or on Skype, and about a tenth of a trip to a meeting or conference somewhere. During the last year I have been in Australia, US, UK and Japan.

 

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?

I belong to several teams that deal with different community-related activities from different angles. Many of us at INCF have some community aspect to our work. If you want to see more of INCF activities, I recommend the Q&A my colleague Helena Ledmyr made for the Communities for Science Communication (C4Sci) group on Trellis back in October.

[Note: you need to be a Trellis member to view this Q&A. If you’d like to request access, drop us an email: info@trelliscience.com]

 

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?

The single biggest challenge was probably trying to start up my new role, from scratch, while also newly returned to work as a severely sleep-deprived parent of very young twins. But I have good colleagues, and I knew the community from before, which helped a lot. Otherwise the most important big challenge is a recurring one – balancing all these different activities into a somewhat coherent whole, while also finding time and mental space for documentation, follow-up and strategy.

There are definitely things that could make this easier. I would like getting some more tools in my community manager ‘toolbox’, especially for how to develop community strategies on different levels. Meeting other community managers and other related roles here on Trellis has been very helpful, already, and will continue to be – hearing how others think about community, what they do and how they plan has given me new ways to think about community management in science. And I like the sense of belonging to a larger group who do something similar to what I am doing – paradoxically, community management can sometimes be a rather lonely activity.

 

And zooming out a little, why do you think community engagement important to science? How have you seen active management improve your community?

The whole of science is a community activity. I would say community is the infrastructure that science runs on – very few discoveries are the work of a lone genius building on nothing, many good collaborations run for decades – and engagement is the glue that binds that community together. It is very likely that parts of your next good idea will come from someone else, and in a more tightly knit community, ideas tend to move faster and further. Likewise, in an engaged community, members likely trust each other more, communicate better, get to know others quicker, and have an easier time collaborating. I would suspect you could prove better return on investment for funding spent in an engaged community.

Right now many scientific fields are facing similar problems as the neuroscience field: the amount of amazing new techniques and available data is growing very fast, but it is supremely challenging to manage, integrate, analyze, share and archive all this, to turn it into knowledge. This means many more researchers are encountering problems that few in their own community have dealt with yet, but for which solutions might exist or be underway in a completely different community.

One of the joys of my working year is managing our participation as a mentoring organization in Google Summer of Code (GSoC), connecting mentors and their project ideas with bright and motivated student developers who are often completely new to science in general, even more so to neuroscience. The GSoC is a way in to the community for them. At the end of the summer, a set of neuroscience tools have been improved, and the students have gotten a taste of neuroinformatics and a place in the community. Funding for scientific software tools is slim, so for many of the projects that participate this fairly tiny support makes a big difference. And we get to interact with a key part of our community in ways we couldn’t otherwise. Everyone wins!

 

Find all of the interviews in this series by clicking the “community engagement Q&As” tag at the top of any blog post.