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The Black Hole

Networks – the big kind – and how they drive Canadian science


We’ve all been told about the value of networks with adages like “It’s not what you know, but who you know”, but I’d never stopped to think about this outside of meeting individual people. While I’m certainly not denying the value of knowing the right person in the right place at the right time, I want to stress the importance of Canada’s secret weapon in the sciences – broad networking.

Last week, I attended the inaugural Till and McCulloch meeting in Montreal (it’s the offspring of the Canadian Stem Cell Network’s annual general meeting) and was part of a full day workshop specifically designed for early career researchers on academic grant writing. I have been a member of the SCN for nearly a decade now and have attended six of their previous meetings, but only now do I realise how critical this Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program is to developing Canada’s next generation of stem cell scientists.

Of course, the NCE’s produce high quality research, but so they should for the amount of money invested in them. What I’m really impressed with through my experiences with the SCN is the power of infrastructure. The SCN unites people from a range of disciplines under a common theme – stem cells. It has brought engineers together with biologists, made major contributions to Canada’s position on embryonic stem cell research, and started many technologies down the long and windy road of therapeutic utility or commercialization.

As important in my mind, however, is the commitment that the SCN has to nurturing its trainees – Canada’s next generation of ideas. Over the years, they have hosted many workshops and events, but none of them hit such a strong chord with me as the grants writing workshop at this year’s meeting.

The grant writing workshop consisted of 25-30 postdocs and PhD students who were given actual grants from SCN scientists and asked to perform as if they were on a CIHR grant panel. It was run by the SCN trainee advisory committee and featured introductory comments by Guy Sauvageau. The “inside scoop” provided was impressive – Guy did a great job of distilling the essence of a fundable grant saying that in the end, it comes down to two things:

  • is the research sound and original? and
  • can they do it?

If you have an original idea and preliminary results, go for it, if not – don’t apply.

Kelly McNagny and Jon Draper then took over and ran a mock session that really removed a lot of the mystique about the grant review process – you really come to an appreciation of how tight the timelines are, how important a clearly written proposal is, and how much agreement there is on application ratings.  Each member of the workshop was given the chance to offer their analysis and arguments about the work inevitably surfaced and were satisfactorily resolved.

Importantly, this workshop does not simply favour Type A, “go get ’em” personalities who are willing and able to break the ice with the big name scientists. Instead, everyone in the room hears the same information and gets a chance to show their grant assessment abilities to the group. Secondly, the preparation component of the workshop puts those who plan and think ahead on level footing with those who think well on the spot. Finally, the pre-meeting setting of the workshop gives additional help by linking a small cohort of trainees, thereby alleviating the high stress sometimes felt by being alone at a conference (cue articles like this one on “Impostor Syndrome” in academia).

This means that instead of the loudest and proudest scientists getting the only chance at a job – as is all too common – all trainees get the chance to cultivate relationships with senior network scientists over the years through having their talks and posters judged through these workshops. This level of interaction is simply not available through larger conferences and is difficult to instigate with big players in the field at smaller conferences. The regular interaction and the collaborative grants and projects that inevitably spring from them give Canadian scientists an edge.

In a world where getting a job in biomedical research seems about as tough as becoming a professional hockey player, I am happy to report my reconnection at this year’s meeting with eight trainees from my SCN-past who now have junior faculty appointments at Canadian universities – respect the power of the broad network.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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