A Vision for Research: Revisited

Hellmann_mission_blogpost2_imageA bit more than a year ago, my lab and I spent a day trying to figure out who we were and what we were about. We wanted to express this identity to ourselves—to help keep us on track and to give us purpose—and we wanted to express it to the outside world. I blogged about the process that we used in our self-exploration, and it’s been great to see other labs, like Chris Buddle’s, give it a try and share their wisdom.

From that process—the process of articulating a mission and vision for our research group—my students and I learned a number of things about ourselves. We learned that we all have different research questions (though the PI shares most of them!); we have different research methods and different stages of career. But we share a common objective. We work to see ecology and climate science inform decisions that protect people and nature. We also all strive for excellence in the work we do. Writing this shared vision down helped—a least for a little while—bring the lab together.

A vision statement should be something you want your organization to hope to achieve, something that reflects your goals and ambitions. A good vision statement should be something like Teach for America’s: “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” This vision doesn’t say a thing about the tasks that teachers do.

In making a statement for our lab, we brainstormed about how we want the world to be and how we want it to be changed or improved through our scientific work. In the day-to-day life of science, teaching, and research, we tend to emphasize productivity, mastery, and progress, the number of papers and grants. But a vision is the reason you do all of those things. Vision also is something that grad students, postdocs, undergrads, and even PIs don’t get to talk about and write down everyday.

Today, I find that we don’t reference our vision, or our mission, statement as much as we probably could or should. We mention it from time to time in lab discussion. We introduce it to new members of the lab. But I now think that group visioning should be a repeated exercise. The statement should be re-crafted from time to time. I also think that the activity of making the vision statement may be more important than having the statement itself, at least from the point of the view of group dynamics.

Our current vision statement does help me as a PI, however. As our group grows and the scope of our work steadily expands, there are more and more opportunities, different directions we could head, different projects we could initiate, and different students we could take on. I think frequently about whether a new project or a new collaboration will advance our vision, as much as I think about whether it will lead to good papers or new streams of funding.

So I think that visioning with a research group is a good idea, maybe not just once but periodically. It doesn’t have to be a formal process, and folks like Chris Buddle and Elena Bennett have a number of good ideas to share. Working with one’s research group to craft a collective mission and vision is just another way of stopping and taking stock. Taking stock provides clarity of purpose, and doing it as a group can elevate your collective endeavors to a new level.

Jessica Hellmann, a 2011 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame. Read more about her work on her blog, Adapting Nature to Climate Change. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Climate scientist guides lab in devising mission statement and ‘branding’ its research

Reproduced from: Gewin, V. 2012. Turning point: Jessica Hellmann. Nature 483: 501.


Conservation biologist Jessica Hellman studies the effects of climate change at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. She was inspired by her one-year fellowship from the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program in Stanford, California to do something that few scientific laboratories do — create a mission and vision statement for her research group.

What is the best piece of career advice you have received?

My PhD adviser was Paul Ehrlich, a population biologist at Stanford University, and a public face of science. I studied with him because I wanted to have something to say about natural-resource management or how to deal with climate change. He was an ideal role model. But what he told me, and what I tell my students now, is “it’s all about science”. Concrete data, experience and knowledge are what give you a voice in the public sphere. If you bring nothing substantial to the table, you are just another voice.

You have a fear of being labelled a butterfly person. Why?

I examine how climate change affects endangered species — an issue that has an inherent complexity because of the dynamics of temperature effects and species interactions. One of the species I’ve studied is the endangered Bay Checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha bayensis), which runs out of food when high temperatures or drought cause its host plant to dry out. I don’t want people to miss the point: I study butterflies not because I am more fascinated with them than with other creatures but because, with so much data available, they serve as a useful proxy for insects in general. But one thing I learned from my leadership fellowship is to be comfortable in my own skin and recognize what distinguishes me as a researcher — I’m learning to embrace my inner butterfly.

Why are you trying to ‘brand’ your research?

There are two dimensions to branding: communicating to the world who you are and what you are about, and helping you to decide what you want to be doing. I wanted to be the person to study how populations are locally adapted to climate, which my group does.

Do you think every scientist should brand themselves?

I think it is a worthwhile exercise. When we first hire a researcher, we want a solid idea of who they are going to be, and it is important for them to think strategically about how they can set themselves apart — so it is helpful to develop a plan that makes that clear.

Why did you decide to write a mission and vision statement for your laboratory?

I wanted to know who we were as a group and what we should focus on. Once you get tenure, there are a million things to do — collaborations, committees and grant applications to write. I decided that one way to be thoughtful about our work, and what to work on, would be to collectively write our mission and vision. I found some instructions and group exercises aimed at businesses, and then we had a retreat to strategically discuss how we could match our strengths, priorities and goals for making our research relevant to larger issues. We’ll put a copy in the lab for new students.

Will you continue to have retreats?

Yes. My research group should have regular retreats. We have lab meetings to talk about science, but retreats focus on broader topics, such as professional development. I want to brainstorm with everybody about what they can be best at. Retreats are also a great way to build morale. Everybody wants to be part of something.

Why did you start blogging and tweeting?

I want to make science relevant to the rest of the world, be it landowners or government agencies — but I want to do it with transparency and honesty. Social media opens the shop doors a bit more. I would never tell students that their time is better spent on a blog than on a published paper, but it is a great way to be more open.

For some thoughts on what makes for a good Mission and Vision statement see Hellmann’s blog post.