A s a scientist in training, it's difficult to do it all by yourself. You need people around you to supervise your research, to inspire your career, or simply to drink coffee with. And this is true at conferences as well--it is not easy to get up and talk to the right people. So the Genomics Network for Young Scientists (GeNeYouS) Young Researchers Program (YRP) has been put in place to help young scientists network during the Genomics Momentum 2004. Over 60 young scientists gathered at this event in Rotterdam from 30 August to 1 September for some serious networking with established researchers, potential employers, and funding agencies. Christine Bunthof (pictured at left) has been responsible for the organisation of this programme. She tells Next Wave what this experience was like.

The Netherlands Genomics Initiative (NGI) had put real effort into making some space for young researchers in this year's Genomics Momentum, which each year welcomes a wealth of international academic, industrial, and governmental people working in genomics. "This Genomics Momentum has been different from previous years," says Christine Bunthof, project coordinator of Young Researchers Program (YRP), in that "it had a lot more to offer to young researchers."

Before she became responsible for YRP, Christine Bunthof (33) worked as a postdoc on a bioinformatics project at Plant Research International in Wageningen. She studied molecular sciences at that same university and continued there with a Ph.D. on fluorescent techniques to assess microbial vitality, from which she graduated in 2002. She has also been one of the founding members of the Genomics Network for Young Scientists ( GeNeYouS), an association of Ph.D. students, postdocs, and young industry scientists working in genomics. This network aims to bring these young researchers together, thereby providing a platform for exchange of information between the members and creating a genomics network of the future.

How It All Started

The idea of organising a programme for young researchers at the Genomics Momentum came up in the beginning of 2004, after discussion with fellow board members of GeNeYouS and with Gijs van der Starre and Wouter Spek of NGI. With her postdoc project coming to its end, Bunthof wrote a complete project proposal to organise YRP, including aims, target group, workshop setup, and funding and public relations plans. NGI granted her proposal and hired her as project coordinator for both YRP and within a 4-year E.U. project called ERA-NET Plant Genomics. "The last 5 months have therefore been extremely busy," she says.

Through YRP, Bunthof wanted to involve young scientists in the debate on genomics and society, because, as she puts it, "academic training includes more than just doing your research project." YRP, consisting of 1 day of workshops and 1 day of project meetings, aimed at having young researchers come to the Momentum to go beyond research in itself. And it has been a success. "More than 60 people participated in the YRP workshops," Bunthof says. She saw that the participants were interested and enjoyed the workshop. Additionally, "the debates about the cases were constructive and highly interactive," she noticed.

"You should not have a 9-to-5 mentality in such a project," Bunthof comments. The organisational aspects in particular required time and flexibility. "I spent a considerable part of the day on meetings, e-mails, and telephone calls," she explains, which is not surprising if you look at the organisations that have been involved. First, she stayed in close touch with the parties nearby, being NGI, Publimarket and Taskforce Europe (the Genomics Momentum project offices), GeNeYouS, and the Young European Biotech Network (YEBN), the European partner network of GeNeYouS. Second, she also spent a reasonable amount of time on external communication, with for example scientific experts, workshop supervisors, sponsors, and funding bodies. She's been looking into various funding opportunities--including E.U. funds, grants from the Dutch government, and support from private companies--to keep costs for the young researchers as low as possible. However, a grant application to the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science was not successful, and the time frame was too short for E.U. funding.

Fortunately, several private companies were interested in sponsorship. She contacted some big pharmaceutical companies, such as DSM and Organon, and sent them a letter with sponsorship possibilities. "And then you just have to call them several times," she says, indicating that you should not expect a response right away. Her experience has been that "in that phase it is useful to go to the company to discuss how they can be involved." With the support of NGI and some of these private companies, the young European scientists only had to pay for travel to Rotterdam. In particular NGI supported all young European researchers with free entrance and both the Dutch-based GeNeYouS and YEBN with a free conference stand.

Workshops

When she started this project, Bunthof had a clear vision of what the programme should look like: She wanted interactive workshops, good networking opportunities, and an exclusive social program for young European researchers. For the workshops she took the central themes of the Genomics Momentum (the Aging, the Hungry, and the Moving World), contacted experts in the respective fields, and developed specific case studies with them. Participants were assigned to small groups to discuss the interests of different stakeholders in the case studies and, by constructive debate, to advise on the policy of the Dutch government in the near future.

Having experts to introduce and to give feedback on the cases would not be enough to make the workshops a true success, however. Bunthof also wanted workshop leaders to introduce and supervise the group debates. "I asked young scientists who were interested in doing this," she says, "but they didn't necessarily have to have much experience in supervising workshops." That way, she says, "they could learn from it as well." To guarantee good workshops, Bunthof invited both the case experts and the session leaders for a training day. They were all enthusiastic about this day, but "I feel a bit rebellious," one of the case experts said, to show that he didn't feel completely comfortable not having spent this day at work.

Beyond Workshops

Even though the workshops were an important part of YRP, there was more to it. Nine representatives of young scientists in the Netherlands, six from Italy and one each from Germany, Poland, and France, flew on Monday, 30 August, to attend the official opening of the Genomics Momentum 2004, which was attended by Dutch Minister Maria van der Hoeven of Education, Culture, and Science, mayor Ivo Opstelten of Rotterdam, and NGI director Peter Folstar, among others. "Coming here with a group of 20 young scientists leaves an impression," says Simon Mooijaart, chair of GeNeYouS, hoping that "it will make [the other attendees] take us seriously."

The foreign young scientists also came over to discuss two upcoming projects to be organised by young European scientists. On Wednesday morning there was a meeting about a large conference for young European life scientists that is to be held in 2006, to give them a chance to present and discuss their scientific achievements and to enhance their career perspectives. The meeting mainly consisted of a sprouting of ideas. "We need to have someone or a group of people standing up and taking it from here," said Mooijaart after the meeting, "so we are inviting enthusiastic young scientists to join."

The Wednesday afternoon session was somewhat more concrete. Francesco Lescai, chair of the Associazone Nazionale Biotecnologi Italiani, presented his plans for a European research project on innovative approaches to science communication. His vision is to organise two public science events during which the effectiveness of different communication tools will be assessed. Being the initiator of this project, he has already written and submitted an official proposal to the European Union and currently awaits a final response. He is positive, because it's highly innovative. "It's not yet another event on public communication of science," he says during his presentation, "but a complete project to study the effectiveness of communication by young scientists."

It is generally known that the best deals are made during the social events after the official part of conferences. Bunthof anticipated this, and she organised a full boat tour, including a buffet dinner, on the last day of the Momentum, with the help of some of her GeNeYouS colleagues. "Actually, this YRP has been one of GeNeYouS's main activities this year," she says, indicating that GeNeYouS has turned this YRP into more than just a workshop session.

Experience

Bunthof found it most exciting to see opportunities opening up along the way. Apart from the management experience she's gained, she's also made a lot of potentially useful contacts, "both for my work and for GeNeYouS," she says. Of course not every step has been successful, like the grant application at the ministry that was turned down, but Bunthof sees the latter as valuable experience. Last but not least, she learned a lot on the content level from the discussions with the case experts about genomics and society.