Teaching Leadership: Inspiration for the New Academic Year


The reciprocity ring: a reminder that leaders are willing to ask for help, and everyone has something to offer

The start of the academic year can be a natural time to try something new. If you’re looking for inspiration for new course content on leadership, read Kate Knuth’s recent post on IonE’s Boreas Environmental Leadership Program blog. Kate, who directs Boreas, facilitated a special session on environmental leadership at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting in August. It attracted participants across the spectrum of career stages — from undergraduates to retirees — and sparked a lively, engaged conversation on these questions:

  • Where and how have you learned best about your own leadership and potential for impact?
  • What skills/connections/practices/support systems do you think are important for developing environmental leaders? How do these differ at different points in a person’s career?
  • How could organizations you are part of help to develop people’s leadership capacities? Think of universities, agencies, professional societies, etc.

There’s a great summary of the group’s insights and advice in Kate’s post. What leadership idea or practice are you most interested in exploring with students this year? Leave a comment.

“Feeling the Jazz”: Lessons in Mentoring from an Old Friend


Bob Denno (photo M. Peterson)

Exactly 6 years ago to this week, I got one of those phone calls that you hope you never get. The caller ID said it was my old friend and post-doc advisor, Bob Denno, calling me at home. Typical for him. But on the other end of the line was his wife, Barb, calling to say that Bob had just suffered a massive heart attack and died while doing research in the field. He was 62.

I often think about my old friend and mentor. It’s hard to overstate the effect Bob had on my academic life. Many of us who knew and loved him consider ourselves fortunate to have worked with him. He was a major figure in the field of insect ecology. I was influenced by his way of asking questions and doing science even if we didn’t see eye to eye on everything. He had a brilliant way of explaining things and distilling complex ideas to their essence.

But it isn’t the science per se that has had a long-term effect on me. It’s all the unspoken things that he did as a mentor that still affect me daily.

Bob once said to me, with his southern California surfer drawl, “Dude, the science is easy, it’s the people that are hard.” It took me years to really appreciate what he was talking about. Sure, doing science is hard, but it is harder still to successfully train really good scientists. Here are a few important lessons he taught me about mentoring:

1. Mentor = coach

Bob taught me that being a successful mentor is like being a coach. We bring talented young men and women into our research groups, people with great potential who have demonstrated some sort of flair and enthusiasm for the areas in which we work. Yet, no matter how brilliant and capable they were in their previous lives, they don’t know how to navigate the new and foreign world of graduate school. Here, they learn how to be independent, how to push beyond what we know, and to always question dogma and authority. They need to become comfortable in the land of no concrete answers.

How do you help them do this? Bob found little things in each of us — blocks, deficiencies, weaknesses, call them what you want — and subtly pointed them out. If we were willing to hear what he had to say, we could start the hard work of improving ourselves.

2. Encouragement is key

Bob had a way of pushing and encouraging you in just the right amounts. I recall one sweltering summer in the punkie-infested salt marshes of New Jersey, when we had run up against a wall in a set of studies we’d been doing for a two years. Nothing was working, and I think Bob sensed that I was losing faith after a long stretch of failures. But as we collected the final samples, some obvious patterns emerged. Now it looked like the experiments were panning out, and we both started to get excited. Bob turned to me and said, “Do you feel the jazz?” At that moment, I certainly did.

Bob and me in NJ salt marsh (photo C. Gratton)

In academic work, there are (usually) more setbacks than successes. For a student or a post-doc, those failures can be crushing and make you question why you are doing this in the first place. (For faculty, it’s very different: we can buffer failures in one project with successes in another.) Maybe Bob sensed that I needed that broader perspective, or maybe he was just as excited as I was about what we were finding. It didn’t matter. His enthusiasm was infectious – when we do feel the jazz, it’s all worth it. I needed to be reminded of that; what we do can be immensely rewarding and downright fun, if we’re present enough to appreciate it.

3. Have fun

When Bob died, our extended family of “Denno-ites” came together to share stories of how he touched our lives. It’s interesting how few focused on the science. Merrill Peterson, another former post-doc of Bob’s (now a professor at Western Washington University), distilled our reflections into a list of “Lessons from Bob,” a copy of which I have hanging in my office:

  • Don’t take yourself too seriously
  • Never forget that just about anything, when viewed from the right angle, can be funny
  • You’re never too old to have a 12-year-old’s sense of humor
  • Work on something you are passionate about
  • When you get knocked down (by reviewers, failed experiments, life’s curveballs), get right back up swinging
  • Surround yourself with people you care about and work doggedly to support them

The last three are what motivate me every day to be a better scientist and mentor: love what you do, and work hard to help develop your people around you.

Although mentoring doesn’t come easily, and we are rarely coached on how to do it, it is among the most important things we do. Who was an important mentor in your academic life, or even your non-academic life (not like it’s easy to separate the two!)? What were their “life lessons” or words of wisdom to you? Were there key moments in your mentoring relationship that changed the way that you mentor your own students? Leave a comment.

Claudio Gratton, a 2013  Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of Landscape and Insect Ecology in the Department of Entomology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  Read more about his group and follow him on Twitter.

Bridging the Leadership Gap: Internships As Catalysts for Post-graduate Success

Gennifer Meldrum, BRITE intern placed at Bioversity International in Rome

“My experience as a BRITE intern at Bioversity International was a pivotal moment in my career.” — Gennifer Meldrum

In my last post I wrote about a major gap in graduate education: the lack of training to equip PhD graduates in the sciences for success in careers outside academia. This is a major failing, since only about 20% of graduates land tenure-track positions at universities.

A partial solution is to provide graduate students with short internships in corporations, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations. This is what we have been doing through UBC’s Biodiversity Internship program, or BRITE. Such internships provide students with real-world experience solving problems in “partner” organizations, offering them an invaluable leadership opportunity. Here’s a short reflection on my experience creating and running BRITE.

How We Did It

Great experiences don’t just happen, of course. They must be carefully crafted. This dawned on me when our funding came in, and I suddenly had the responsibility of delivering on my promise. Where to start? What procedures to put in place?

I started by consulting an existing internship program at UBC (the Bridge program), and thinking through how our process ought to differ from that, given our context. Then we set forth, with procedures to continually revisit guidance and policies. After the first year, we identified four essential criteria for picking successful pairings (none of which will come as a surprise), and we still use them now:

  1. Anticipated contribution of the opportunity to the student’s career
  2. (Our perceived) importance of the project, to the partners and in general
  3. Fit of student with project; ability of the student to do as hoped
  4. Expected quality of internship experience based on the arrangement (e.g., work from office vs. telecommute) and partner agency/supervisor (here drawing upon past intern reports to judge partners)
  5. Financial considerations (including matching funds from partners, but high scores also if a project depends critically on BRITE funding; low scores if no matching funds or if BRITE funding is only helpful and not necessary).

To find good matches, we ask the students and internship hosts to prepare an application that speaks explicitly to all these criteria, and we engage them in a back-and-forth to help them through the process.

What We Learned

Was it working? Reports from both interns and host organizations documented that it was (see quotes below), buoying our commitment to the program. Sally Otto, director of the Biodiversity Research Centre and PI of the NSERC training grant, was a key champion. Key additions and revisions included a clear explanation of the selection process, and a list of past interns, their host organizations and projects.

Future Directions

Alas, all good things come to an end. The grant was a one-time opportunity, and the end is nigh. Would the internship program dry up, with all our learning and social capital seeping away?

No. Sally Otto won the MacArthur “Genius Grant”, and in a huge vote of confidence and inspiring generosity, she contributed $100,000 to jump-start a $1 million endowment effort to keep BRITE running in perpetuity. We need a lot more help to make this dream a reality, but at least we’re on our way. If you want to contribute to this effort, please visit ‘Biodiversity Internship Fund: Help our students help the Earth’.

Sally Otto, director of the Biodiversity Research Centre at UBC and champion of the BRITE internship program
Sally Otto, director of the Biodiversity Research Centre at UBC and champion of the BRITE internship program

So, how do you simultaneously train young scientists for a diverse set of non-academic careers, and insert much-needed science into policy and practice? We don’t have all the answers, but we feel like now we have one. Here are a few reflections shared by interns and partner organizations:

  • “The BRITE internship was extremely successful for me…I got a job with the organization I interned with! For many non-profits, especially in a poor economy, they don’t have the money to hire interns. And as a student I certainly couldn’t afford to work there for free. This internship showed them the value of having an academic work with them (I was the only person with a PhD working there), and supported me while doing that.” — Kerrie O’Donnell, placed at Ecotrust Canada.
  • “The interns that CPAWS-BC had the opportunity to work with through the BRITE program added immeasurable capacity and insights to our conservation work. Having access to innovative thinkers who could tackle complex policy and research issues is invaluable to a non-profit conservation organization and we look forward to working with BRITE scholars in the years to come.” – Nicola Hill, Executive Director, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, BC Chapter
  • “My BRITE internships have been a wonderful bridge between where I am as a student and where I want to be as a professional.” — Manon Picard, placed at CPAWS-BC and the Secretariat of the CBD.
  • “We were extremely happy with the way this internship turned out…. Having Jenn be part of our team for 6 weeks was a huge benefit to our organization, in the work she did, in the connections she helped us forge with scientists and other organizations and in the support she provided other staff. It was also a real pleasure to work with her. Our only regret is that she wasn’t with us longer.”– Georgia Strait Alliance

Kai Chan, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a Canada Research Chair (tier 2) and associate professor in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at University of British Columbia. Read more at his lab’s blogs and follow him on Twitter.


Bridging the Leadership Gap: Investing in Graduate Training

As a BRITE intern, Jenn Burt  helped the Georgia Strait Alliance build relationships with scientists

As a BRITE intern, Jenn Burt helped the Georgia Strait Alliance build relationships with scientists

At the center of graduate education is a dirty little secret, that’s actually no secret: Most graduate education in science (natural and social) leaves graduates woefully unequipped to thrive in the careers they pursue.

I’m not writing to opine why, but rather to tell you a bit about what I’ve learned about fostering post-graduate leadership while initiating a program at University of British Columbia (UBC). This Biodiversity internship program, or BRITE fills a major gap in graduate education, while also inserting crucial science into policy and practice. Of all that I’ve done at UBC, it’s probably my most important contribution.

Pressing issues in environment and sustainability require the expertise of leaders well trained in science. Climate change, biodiversity loss, land-use change, food security, ecosystem-service degradation, marine pollution, and over-harvesting are just a few of the challenges that humanity faces in the 21st century. There are, of course, plenty of graduate students in science, but current programs inevitably lack the real-world and leadership training and experiences that would enable them to succeed and lead in non-academic organizations.

But only a small fraction of PhDs — perhaps 20%, based on recent statistics — will land tenure-track positions at universities. The others — the 80% — go elsewhere. In so doing, they are not failing us, rather we are failing them by insufficiently equipping them for success outside academia.

Without appropriate training and experience, science graduate students are hampered from identifying and realizing appropriate opportunities. They also miss critical experiences that would enhance their future and current work — even if that future work would be in a different organization or sector. Similarly, the science needs of partner organizations go unfilled, increasing the gap between science and practice/policy, to the detriment of both.

In my next post, I’ll write about how I developed the BRITE internship program as a partial solution to bridging this gap. What’s been your experience working on this challenge? What approaches do you find most promising? Leave a comment.

Kai Chan, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a Canada Research Chair (tier 2) and associate professor in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at University of British Columbia. Read more at his lab’s blogs and follow him on Twitter.

Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse: Establishing the Rules of the Game

Hello everyone,

On Sept. 27th Andy Hoffman shared on the Leopold listserv an article that he wrote stemming from ideas generated at the Leopold Fellows workshop in Palo Alto several years ago.
Michigan Journal of Sustainability: Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse: Establishing the Rules of the Game
I think this article strikes at the very core of what we are hopefully “about” as science communicators, having gone through the Leopold training. As such, I hope this article sparks some discussion among us, and I thought I would try to get the balling roll with one observation.

I very much appreciate the 12 Rules of Engagement cited in the article, and Rule #2 caught my eye in particular: “Recognize the rules of academia. An academic scientist can best enter the public debate from the security of tenure. Junior faculty members must remain aware that the academic model is an apprenticeship model, and young scientists must earn their place within the academic community through tenure before engaging in public discourse. The route to tenure is still based on academic scholarship, not public engagement. While one may choose to make brief forays into the public debate before tenure, public engagement should increase as one’s career advances.”

I think this is closely related to a special session that Leopold fellows put together for the 2012 AAAS on The Beauty of Benefits of Escaping the Ivory Tower (see this Leopold 3.0 post). In that session we talked about confronting and removing institutional barriers to public engagement within academe…..

Can we in fact engender change within our universities? Can we in fact reinvent how beans are counted? Is it possible for institutions to recognize outreach (including public and political discourse) as a form of scholarship, scholarship which for junior faculty can use in a small way toward tenure? What are appropriate levels of engagement activity for junior faculty (recognizing of course that not one size fits all and that institutional cultures are different)?

Scholarly organizations are at least beginning to recognize such discourse (e.g., the American Geophysical Union, the Association of American Geographers, etc.).