To follow up our interview series, this month we would like to introduce you to the former and the current speakers of the Survey group, Danja and Bernhard. Danja worked on the establishment of the survey 2017, arranging the technical aspects since January 2016. Bernhard, the speaker of the 2017 survey group, had the task to run the survey and will lead the survey team through the analysis phase. Ultimately, the results of the survey will be made public and will be useful to get a coherent image of the status of the doctoral researchers among the Helmholtz Centers and to focus on the next steps we would like to take to improve our situation.
The Survey is of great importance for Helmholtz Juniors. Survey 2014 was the ground on which we based our request to have better and comparable contracts among the centers. You will read about this in a soon-coming blog.
Question: First, could you tell us a bit about your PhD project?
Danja: I’m doing my PhD in cancer epidemiology, using a large European cohort study to analyze the relation between the Receptor Activator of Nuclear Factor κβ-axis and breast cancer. My aims are mostly explorative: if and how these biomarkers relate to breast cancer in humans, but they could potentially be used to improve e.g. risk prediction or primary prevention of breast cancer.
Bernhard: Being a structural geologist, I focus on the Alpine Fault in New Zealand, which is the plate boundary between the Pacific and the Australian Plate. I aim to better understand what the rocks can tell us about the deformation mechanisms associated with large earthquakes.
Q: We are all part of the Helmholtz association. What do you think is the value of being part of it?
D: I think the network it creates. It gave me the opportunity to meet other doctoral researchers from different fields, as well as to get a broader idea of research and academia in Germany outside my institute.
B: I agree with Danja. In addition, collaboration between individual centers representing a broad variety of research fields encourages us to think out of the box and to try new attempts to tackle scientific tasks.
Q: How have you first learned about Helmholtz Juniors and why did you decide to join?
D: I learned about HeJu when I joined one of the working groups of the PhD council at the DKFZ. What drew me to HeJu was the more overarching nature of and the fact that it aims to address bigger picture things, that can be difficult to address on your own or even within your institute.
Q: You are part of the survey group, that is vital to the HeJu to gather information and decide future strategies. How would you define the work done by your group and what could be achieved with it?
D: We work in a two year cycle; one group sets up and runs the survey, the next analyses the data and publishes results. We worked closely with Helmholtz headquarters on e.g. legal aspects of the survey. Most of our work is in the background, but over the last few months our main task was communication; we did our best to annoy all HeJus into advertising the survey at their centers, and Immo Korte at Helmholtz Headquarters has been great in helping us reach all the Helmholtz centers. As for future strategies, I think ‘gather information and decide future strategies’ captures the aims of the survey group well.
B: The survey and its results are the essential base for any discussion between the HeJus and any institution within the Helmholtz Association. However, this important role required that the workflows within the group had to be professionalized. This is one of the greatest achievements of past year’s survey group under Danja’s leadership. Data handling and security follow the essential guidelines and templates are prepared so that the next group can minimize the effort to be invested in formal requirements and focus on the aspects they want to get out of the survey. A major achievement of the survey is that it is widely accepted as reference to set minimum standards for the working conditions of doctoral researchers at the individual centers.
Q: Being a member of the survey group is a great responsibility and probably requires a good amount of your time. Why did you decide to join this group?
D: It actually seemed like less work than the working conditions or events group! I knew I wanted to join either the communications or survey group and decided for the survey group because I get to use some of my epi/public health skills.
B: In my case the decision was quite trivial. Benedikt, at that time the second HeJu from my center, was already part of the working conditions group. I don’t think communication is my strongest skill and the events group had already a fair number of members, I decided to join the smallest group: the survey group.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you are facing or faced working in your group?
B: Besides the need to meet all the formal requirements, one of the biggest challenges is to keep the group member’s motivation high. Running and evaluating the survey is a quite time-consuming task and the potential for frustration is high. Bearing in mind that all group members are volunteering the speaker has to ensure that group sticks to the schedule and still has some fun.
D: I have to agree with Bernhard here that group-work can be fun and horribly frustrating at the same time, but I think we’ve also had a great core group of people in the survey group in both 2016 and 2017. For me, dealing with data protection and security issues was a learning curve. I knew it existed of course but I had never been directly involved with or responsible for them.
Q: What do you think is the next challenge of the survey group or the HeJu in general?
D: for the survey group, analyzing the data from this survey. We are also, for the first time, trying our hand at a time series analysis of some specific topics to see if there are any changes over time. For HeJu, a lot of work has been going on around working conditions and NextGen@Helmholtz, which I think is absolutely awesome! While running the survey (and also in setting up NextGen@Helmholtz I think) we noticed that not nearly all docs know what HeJu is or does. We exist to represent all docs, so I think this is a challenge to tackle.
B: Whereas analyzing the data of the survey 2017 and to carry out the time series analysis are goals to be achieved in the next months, having a proper hand-over to the next survey group will be the final challenge for this group. It would be a fantastic turnout on the time invested by last year’s group members, if we manage to provide the next survey group with all the information necessary to focus on preparing the questionnaire, setting-up and running the next survey.
Q: Recently, a lot of awareness rose on the correctness of data communication and on Science in general, culminating in the March for Science. What is your opinion on such manifestations and movements?
D: The awareness and very public discussion on science is great. On the short term it’s relevant to scientists, but I think that in the long term it’s relevant to everyone that good unbiased science exists.
B: My personal point of view is that these events are essential to communicate to society what science is about. A profound methodological base accepted by the scientific community is essential to achieve meaningful results. However, what these results tell us, how they should be interpreted and what consequences should arise, should and often is open to debate. There is no single expert to explain how the world works.
Q: In your opinion, what is the major challenge scientists are facing in their relationship with society?
B: Society invests tremendous amounts of money in science. Especially within the Helmholtz Association this money is often used to conduct fundamental research under fantastic working conditions. Scientists have to acknowledge that society has a right to get informed about their research in a way everyone is able to understand.
D: I agree with Bernhard, he also makes a very good point in saying “…in a way everyone is able to understand”. Scientists are good at disseminating work to other scientists, but communication to the general public mostly happens through media. It would be great to see more focus on science communication in a broader form than manuscripts, conferences, and press releases.
Q: Coming to a conclusion, we would like to know what you would like to say to someone interested in joining the Helmholtz Juniors. Should they?
D: Definitely! There is work involved of course but, if you’re interested, it’s also rewarding and the different working groups give you the chance to develop very different skills.
B: Absolutely. As doctoral researchers our training is closely related to the research we conduct, be it in the lab or when it comes to presenting the results in conferences and papers. Joining the HeJus encourages you to develop a number of soft skills like time and conflict management but also to see what and how things are done in different disciplines.
Q: As a last question, would you like to share your favourite moment in the HeJu and explain why it was important for you?
D: I think HeJu has had a few fantastic achievements over the last year, with our letter about working conditions to the Helmholtz board and BMBF (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung) and our first NextGen@Helmholtz conference. I will have to go a bit smaller though; my highlight was running the survey. We invested a lot of time and had to jump some unexpected hurdles on the way, so it was very satisfying to see the live result!
B: The first NextGen@Helmholtz at HZI (Helmholtz-Zentrum für Infektionsforschung) last year in Braunschweig with doctoral researchers from all over the country coming together and presenting what they do was a fantastic experience. But I agree with Danja, running the survey was my favorite moment, too. We spent so much time during the last year on all the preparation and had a rough time trying to finish the survey this February. Seeing that the survey was finally running and that the number of participants was constantly increasing was amazing.