'Get to Know Your Neighbor' promotes scholarly interactions across campus

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Postdoctoral scholars and graduate students may spend many hours hidden away in their laboratories, focused on research projects and collecting data for papers. As a result, they often can overlook the value of networking and meeting colleagues across campus.

To address this, members of one laboratory in the Department of Food Science in the College of Agricultural Sciences have introduced a new take on the traditional weekly data-centric lab meetings by having Get to Know Your Neighbor sessions. These meetings promote positive interactions between research groups across the University.

"Members of my lab each suggest a few faculty members, generally those whose research interests overlap a little with ours, and every semester we collectively decide who we would like to invite," said Edward Dudley, associate professor and the Casida Development Professor of Food Science.

A number of the sessions already have been held, noted Nikki Shariat, a postdoctoral researcher in the Dudley lab who introduced the idea of these meetings. "They've been a lot of fun. They provide a relaxed environment for our lab members to get to know other faculty on campus and to interact with lab groups that we may not otherwise meet," she said.

"We used to do these in my previous lab, and they provided a fantastic opportunity to meet with other researchers. Because the departments at Penn State are so diverse, I thought it would great to introduce Get to Know Your Neighbor meetings here."

The format of these meetings is informal and designed to allow a lot of open-floor discussion, Shariat explained. Visiting faculty show a few slides, often a couple of funny photos from early in their careers and a slide or two describing their scientific principles and outlooks on running a successful research program.

"They spend time talking about pivotal career decisions they made and what drove them to become scientists," she said. "They discuss what hurdles they met along the way and, importantly, how these challenges sculpted their approach to science.

"It's interesting to hear what brought investigators to Penn State and what drives them to develop a research program here."

Faculty are encouraged to bring along members of their research group, and often the two groups go out together for lunch or beverages afterwards to further the opportunity for the researchers to get to know each other. These meetings can be beneficial for all participants, Shariat pointed out.

"For postdocs, it's interesting to hear from newer faculty about how they applied for jobs, how they negotiated their startup package and how they dealt with the tenure process," she said. "For graduate students who may not yet have committed to a given career, it's encouraging to see that someone who is a successful faculty member may not have taken the most linear path to where they are now.

"In addition, these interactive sessions often also provide a fun trip down memory lane," she added.

Although the focus of these meetings is on the professor's experiences as a scientist, rather than a research-focused presentation, faculty often include a few slides that describe an exciting facet of their research.

The gatherings even have resulted in successful scientific collaborations, according to Shariat.

"We currently are doing a joint research project with another lab and are getting ready to submit a paper from this collaboration," she said. "It originated purely from chatting with a student from the visiting professor's lab during one of these sessions."

The Get to Know Your Neighbor series extends beyond the College of Agricultural Sciences. The Dudley lab recently hosted Craig Cameron, professor and Eberly Chair in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and his graduate students and postdocs joined him.

"Because Craig is in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the Eberly College of Science, this was a great opportunity for my lab to network across different colleges at Penn State," said Dudley.

"The opportunity to reminisce and inspire in sessions such as these is fun and rewarding," said Cameron, who added that his lab plans to start a Get to Know Your Neighbor series in the fall.

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Last Updated June 18, 2013