Satellite Meetings: Tips for Engaging Stakeholders Remotely

Last year in June, I worked with Future of Research to host our MentoringFutureSci meeting, where we convened stakeholders, from graduate students to department leadership, and tasked them with developing a set of guidelines to improve research training environments. The meeting was different in that we also engaged remotely with stakeholders across six different campus ‘satellite meetings.’ This allowed us to cast a broader net with regards to stakeholder input, as well as provide other campuses the opportunity to engage their local stakeholders in conversations around mentoring and training environments.

Scientists across disciplines are now recognizing and coming to terms with both the inaccessibility and environmental cost of hosting large national and international conferences (see the awesome thread below).

While it doesn’t provide a full solution to many of these issues, the satellite meeting model, a hybrid of the webinar and traditional meeting styles, allows for meetings that are less costly yet flexible to engage with stakeholders across campuses. Coincidentally, I’ve been asked in the last month by two separate organizing committees to provide insights into how to successfully run a meeting with satellite sites, so I decided to write this piece for anyone else who is interested in the model. Below you’ll find my two major pieces of advice.

Have clear goals and structure

Like any meeting, one that engages satellites works best when there is a clear goal and structure for the meeting. There’s a story I read once in a development psychology/attachment theory piece about children feeling most safe and comfortable in a fenced in playground (room to play and explore but with clear boundaries). This also applies to your satellite meeting facilitators. In other words, you should have a clear schedule of the parts of the meeting that will be live-streamed, usually speeches, and the parts of the meeting that won’t, usually workshops and breakouts (see my rough sketch below, with the main meeting timeline on top, and the satellite on the bottom). Having a clear schedule with opportunities to tune into the livestream and participate in workshops also gives satellite organizers the freedom to tailor their own schedule to the pieces they think will be most relevant for their audiences, and organize their own parallel speakers and workshops should they wish to.

As you can see, the format that this meeting works best for is those that require participation in workshops and further input by stakeholders. The idea is to treat each satellite meeting as a small working/breakout group that convenes for each workshop and then reports back in the ‘large group reconvene’ session along with central meeting breakout groups. Satellites with many participants can also break up into small groups and report out one or two salient points that haven’t been reported at the main meeting. If there are more than six or seven satellite meetings and having all of them report out becomes unwieldy, have them submit their main points via chat for a point person at the central meeting to report out. Because you won’t have full control as to who will be organizing and facilitating the satellite meetings and workshops, having a clearly laid out goal and facilitation plan will help everyone start out on the same page. Which brings me to my next point.

Have clearly defined logistics

There are several aspects of the meeting that will logistically require to have a plan in place to assure smooth sailing and quick adjustment if and when hiccups occur:

  1. As you can imagine, you need a solid A/V set-up at your main meeting. You will need a room that can project the speakers’ slides, and that has the capacity to log into a chat room such as Google Hangouts, Zoom, or BlueJeans. Google Hangouts has a really cool live closed-captioning feature that makes for more accessible meetings. Most of these platforms give you control of who is muted so you can avoid feedback issues, and have a chat feature that can let you quickly communicate with your satellite facilitators. You will also need an A/V set-up that allows input from multiple microphones (multiple cameras are a plus). Remember that the satellite meetings won’t be able to pick up audio from participants at the main meeting unless they are speaking into a microphone. Satellite facilitators/organizers should designate a point person to communicate with the person in charge of A/V on the day of the meeting. Having point people’s phone numbers can help provide a means to communicate during troubleshooting tech issues.
  2. Set up a Google Site, Google Drive, or other form of organizing and collecting feedback from satellite meetings. I like Google Drive because it allows each satellite meeting to have access to materials relevant to their own satellite and take notes on a Google Doc that is either open to other facilitators or just the main meeting organizers and each individual satellite.
  3. Provide your facilitators with a pre-meeting packet that contains all of this information: links to drive/docs, a meeting schedule, workshop facilitation prompts, and logistical and A/V information for the day of the meeting. You can also provide them with standardized/template language for promoting the meeting at their campuses and tips and tricks for facilitating workshops if they’ve never done so before. For the latter, I used an adapted version of the facilitation guide from the Entering Research and Entering Mentoring curricula, which can be downloaded for free.

Concluding Thoughts

That’s it! You’re ready to run your own conference with satellite meetings. If you’re concerned about your participants’ limited ability to network given the remote structure, I will add that networking at both in-person and remote meetings requires accessibility and intention. Have your intake form note which participants are looking for connections and mentorship, who is willing to be contacted to mentor others, and then follow up after the meeting to provide people with this information and opportunities to connect. Depending on the size and purpose of your meeting, there are different issues that you will come across that can be creatively solved or adapted. I’ve alluded to some above, though I am sure there are others I haven’t covered. Like with general meetings, you will still have to keep in mind accessibility and representation. Having remote satellite meetings doesn’t by default make your meeting any more accessible to diverse audiences (see my comment above on subtitles, as an example). Likewise, the voices you choose to highlight and elevate, and those you choose to organize and facilitate satellite meetings will have a huge impact on stakeholder turnout and who feels represented and safe participating in workshops. As always, if you have any follow-up questions or comments, my inbox and Twitter DMs are open. Happy organizing!

Scismic Lab Seeker

A great new resource that has been in development for some time and recently released its Beta version, Scismic, aims to “empower scientists to develop and take charge of their careers.” With this aim, Scismic founders Danika Khong, Elizabeth Wu, and Claudia Dall’Osso have developed and released Scismic Forum and Scismic Lab Seeker, and plan to add job platform tools in the near future as well. In contrast to our own Labmosphere Quiz, the data collected from their Lab Seeker tool are being presented publicly to any who hold a Scismic account. Because the ratings are kept anonymous, the hope is to move towards a more open and communicative scientific culture in which different mentoring and lab styles/environments are acknowledged and rewarded, and people are more carefully matched to their career needs: think Glassdoor meets Linkedin for biomedical research scientists. Continue reading

#OktoSay: Let’s Talk Mental Health

Last month was mental health awareness month. Because of this, when our friends over at Chronically Academic asked me to write a blog for their site, I decided to send them this piece on my recent realizations after battling with my own mental health issues, and in the way that having a strong support network both at home and work helped me manage and overcome them. As someone who has gone through it, I understand how hard it can be to reach out and ask for help, and how isolating things can feel. Believe me, it does get better, but only if you seek help and reach out. If you don’t have a strong support network or don’t know where to start looking for resources, check out our resource page on this site.

In healing solidarity,

Juan Pablo Ruiz

Coming Out Autistic: Breaking the Stigma on Neurodiversity

There’s labels. For as long as you can remember, others have been sticking words onto you to make sense of what is in front of them. Those you make uncomfortable in school call you weird, strange. You can’t play with them because of these. Others realize very quickly that you will do and believe anything they say, so the labels accumulate in the whispers, the giggles, and the pranks. Those who love you and want to comfort you call you unique, special, and precious. Teachers will one day come to use these words as well, but to them they’ll add genius, talented, one of a kind. These will pepper recommendation letters, open doors.

But they will also pepper your ego, an ego that you now hide behind so that the other labels don’t matter. The ego comes at a price though, and the weight of the world’s problems starts to lean into you:

“You’re going to cure cancer someday, or AIDS!” they yell, again with the best of intentions. Your school parades you in front of parents as an example of what their own children can become: National Merit Scholars, perfect score on the SAT, admissions to MIT and Duke, full scholarships…labels. Peers you rarely interact with give you one last one before you leave, and it comes with an expectation: Most Likely to Succeed. No pressure. Continue reading

Science March DC, Future of Research Teach-In

Thanks to Future of Research and some last-minute planning, I had the pleasure of leading a Teach-In at today’s March for Science DC, titled, “Challenges in Becoming a Scientist.” Despite the rain, the tent was packed with people ranging from the ages of around seven to seventy: some scientists, others not; all in support of science. While there will be an official write-up, I’d like to write some thoughts while the conversations of the day are fresh in my mind and the feeling of hope and solidarity awakened in my heart.

In what was a beautiful example of the marriage between the arts and sciences, banners with poems relating to science were placed in a tent for people to admire. I got permission to borrow the banner of this poem, “A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth,” which I used to kickstart the session with the affirmation that anyone, including a one-year old curiously tugging at the tablecloth, can be considered a scientist and should be encouraged in that pursuit (perhaps to the chagrin of her poor mother, which I’m sure many of our own parents can remember well).

It seemed appropriate that the first question came from a small girl who expressed to me her concern over global warming and pollution, followed by another by a young boy who expressed his concern over the loss of wildlife due to hunting. Their bravery opened up the inquisitive, if somewhat shy or socially conscious minds, of the adults in the room, who quickly followed suit.

I mentioned a desire to hear everyone’s voices and concerns, and asked for a respect of the differing opinions shaped by our own limited and human experiences, for a recognition of the inherent human worth in everyone present.

I was incredibly grateful for the older man who bravely asked, “If I get two identical resumes, should I go with the diversity pick, just for diversity’s sake.” I say he was brave because we unfortunately live in a world that might have labeled him as ignorant or angrily responded YES! without considering his concerns and engaging. He was being a true scientist, asking a question that challenged his worldview, open to the data that might contradict him.

I challenged him to invite both candidates in for an interview, to recognize that rarely are two people as identical as their resumes might make them seem. I challenged him to take an implicit bias test online; to be aware of the quick, unconscious decisions his brain might be making to make two non-identical resumes seem identical. Another young man, a POC and recruiter at an engineering firm, challenged this man to ask what the stories behind the resumes were:

Did one person, regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, disability, or religion, take out student loans, work part-time, or finish his degree in ten years instead of the traditional four due to circumstances outside their control? Does their struggle show a strong resilience to succeed where others would not, a perseverance to pass on to mentees through example?

Finally, I challenged the man to recognize that a diversity choice is not “just a diversity choice.” I asked him to look at the faculty in his university or place of work. If there is a prevalence of one gender, race, religion, ethnicity…etc, then bringing diversity inherently challenges outdated forms of thinking, brings innovation and creativity, and provides a real example of success and mentorship to those who might have a hard time finding those who will understand their own struggles.

When a sophomore in high school asked me what he should do to become a scientist, I didn’t tell him to pile on more AP’s, join more clubs, or rack up service hours. I told him to find people who he wanted to be like and ask them for mentorship and guidance. I told him he wouldn’t have the high school phase in his life again, and he should enjoy that, to do what he loves and love what he does.

We heard from people concerned about open access, and from graduate students concerned about a lack of mentorship in careers outside of academia. We heard from a graduate student worried she wasn’t involved enough in activism as a first-year. I encouraged her to focus on her project and her own health and mental well-being; to perhaps find one issue she was passionate about and get involved only to the extent it relaxed her, not stressed her more.

Among the voices, some expressed concern about bullying and harassment, this time not in academia or higher-ed, but at the K-12 level, remembering all too clearly curiosity and enthusiasm snuffed out or closeted by taunting peers and frustrated teachers. Another young girl confirmed there was a lack of encouragement in STEM at her school.

I reminded those in the audience, especially the young ones, that enthusiasm and curiosity did not make them weird, strange, or different. It made them unique, beautiful, and a gift to a human race that so desperately needs of that very enthusiasm and curiosity.

If you are the parent to one of these children, and they are in need of encouragement, role-models, or just a friend who will listen attentively to their monologues about citrus trees or grizzly bears and answer their questions patiently, I am more than happy to help with that, be it by Twitter, Facebook, or even Skype, and am sure others would too.

It was fitting too, that the young girl who opened the questions closed them by stating:

“I’m interested in all types of science. But when I grow up, I wanna be in science with the earth…animals…and humans! And I want to make sure we are all healthy, and strong, and all feel good.”

If that’s what the future looks like, you can certainly count me in.

In science solidarity,

Juan Pablo Ruiz


Radical Self-Care: 3 Strategies

The pace of life in today’s world and a cultural focus on productivity and outcomes leave little time for self-care. Taking time for mental hygiene is not embedded in our culture in the way physical hygiene is; I would argue that both are equally important. You’ve probably heard or even used the phrase, “I thrive on stress.” In our scientific culture, long days and nights in the lab or in front of the computer are worn as a badge of honor, of dedication to the cause, or simply what must be done. And while low levels of temporary stress do lead to increases in some measures of performance and productivity, our bodies did not evolve to “thrive” on high levels of chronic stress. This leads to decreases in output and creativity, but is also correlated to long-term risks to your cardiovascular and immune health. Functioning on low levels of emotional energy and high levels of stress for long periods of time can feel like we’re treading water: we’re still breathing, but it’s not sustainable.

Unfortunately, it sometimes takes us sinking to notice that something is wrong and feel required to take action. And while some of us notice the issues while we’re treading water, there’s a fear that putting in more energy to fix things followed by failure will only make things worse. Many things have been said about the PhD (and academic science in general) and whether or not continuing is worth it, including this recent blog in Science and this one on the “Valley of Sh*t.” As someone who was recently in that place, and has hit rock bottom at other points in my life, I’ve developed a three point strategy for turning discomfort and stress into personal growth, ultimately leading to what one of my past counselors has called “Radical Self-Care”, and a recognition of what my needs are in a situation. Though these three points are listed in the order that makes sense for me, sometimes there is a clear need for one over another. Care must be taken however, to not get stuck on one solution if it fails to get us where we want it to: Continue reading

Academia Incompatible with Family Life

Here is yet another article pointing to the larger issue in academia of increasing competitiveness and a focus and glorification of an unhealthy lifestyle. While social scientists continue to correlate mental well-being and balanced time spent with loved ones with creativity and productivity, our culture continues to push us away from these things. How long before we realize that this is going to have repercussions at the systemic level?

Redefining Success Stories – Introduction

As scientists and academics, we are all familiar with the talks given by respected group heads, both men and women, about balancing work and life, and what paths they took to get to their successful careers. And while these talks do open our perspectives as to what is and isn’t feasible if we choose the traditional academic path, they continue to push the subconscious perspective that the only success for those pursuing a scientific PhD, is to end up in the academy as the head of a group.

For most, this can cause anxiety and other mental health issues when the values and sacrifices needed to reach this level of what is considered success don’t match with our own. Add this to the fact that very few faculty positions are actually available for people finishing their postdoc, and you have a recipe for many leaving the traditional tenure track career path. This has gotten to the point where staying in academia, as opposed to leaving, has become the “alternative” career path (See this episode of HelloPhD for dealing with issues when stepping off the academic track).

There needs to be a conversation in scientific academia about shifting our values and definition of success from what we publish and produce, to the impact that we have on our own well-being and those of others. In order to help with that, Labmosphere will be featuring blog posts on successful scientists who decided to step off the academic tenure track and are having an incredible time as scientists, but more importantly as human beings. If you know someone who fits this description, and would like for me to interview them on the site, please send me a nomination email with their information, and help us redefine scientific success.

Sexual Harassment of Students by University Staff Hidden by Non-Disclosure Agreements

In our continued fight against lab bullying and harassment, it is a welcome sight to see that others are pointing out the discrepancy between the incidence, reporting, and effective dealing with instances of harassment (sexual or not) and bullying in academia. We can only hope that through our combined efforts and other grassroots movements and organizations, such as the 1752 group, we can collectively begin to dismantle the culture of abuse that is all too prevalent in many institutes.

Academics Anonymous: Why I’m Leaving Academia

The Guardian Higher Education section is constantly publishing interesting and well-written articles about the issues surrounding academic life. In one of their particular sections, titled Academics Anonymous, different academics give their opinions and perspectives on what can sometimes be quite a frustrating topic, especially for those who feel unable to voice their feelings or trapped in cycles of unhappiness.

I recently stumbled on one of their older articles, written by someone about to leave the academic scene after a stressful time in their Postdoc.  The author gives a more negative view on the entire academic process and career progression, but in doing so brings insight into some of the more pertinent issues.

Like Academics Anonymous, we continue encouraging the sharing of personal stories anonymously as a powerful tool for discussing important issues and bringing about cultural change.