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An article by the CAMBAM student chapter appeared in the latest Society for Mathematical Biology Newsletter (Vol 25, #2, http://www.smb.org). In this article, Tom, Morgan, Fred, and me give a quick tour of the history of the student chapter and break down our strategies and a couple of tricks from along the way. We obtained permission to publish the manuscript here on our blog. This is a thorough look under the hood of our community building effort, enjoy.


CAMBAM – Community building in Applied Mathematics for Bioscience And Medicine

Lennart Hilbert, Morgan Craig, Thomas Quail, Frédéric Simard
Centre for Applied Mathematics in Bioscience And Medicine (CAMBAM)

A quick comparison of this piece’s title and our affiliation indicates CAMBAM both as a young research centre and a sprouting community. CAMBAM – the Centre – is an interuniversity, interdisciplinary research network for the application of mathematics to address challenges in bioscience and medicine through partnership with industry, government and other stakeholders in society. We established the CAMBAM student chapter a little over one year ago to foster the community aspect. Initially two, then three, now four started to actively build a student community inside CAMBAM. Since our debut, we have a surprising resonance, have built a great momentum throughout the year, and have gained a couple of insights about starting and running a student chapter in CAMBAM’s specific environment. We would like to share these insights, hoping that they can serve as inspiration for other student initiatives and as a reflection on how to improve interdisciplinary research through student organization.

One of CAMBAM’s aims as a research center is to bridge the gap between academe and industry, governance, and communities. With this in mind, we realized the following general objectives for building a student community: (I) Give students opportunities to connect, forming a vital and powerful community that can effectively respond to requests made to CAMBAM’s various quantitative skills inside and outside of our network. (II) Use modern “marketing” methods to allow shareholders, potential partners, and future students an insider perspective on CAMBAM.

Before doing any work on the ground, the two initial organizers (TQ and LH) identified a few strategic points that we believe could, in general, apply to (potential) initiatives in other interdisciplinary centers: (1) As we do this outside of our own research and studies, our time is limited. While the student initiative has a small allowance, finances are nonetheless tight. (2) We had the names of CAMBAM’s Principal Investigators (PIs); however, we needed to make a contact list from scratch as no student contact list or student database existed. (3) Almost all CAMBAM research groups are situated in Montréal. However, integrating students from the different departments of McGill University, Concordia University, l’Université de Québec à Montréal, and l’Université de Montréal poses a major infrastructural challenge. (4) In our view, if we wanted to be relevant, we needed to offer something new, something that matters to a student in CAMBAM!

Here are our answers to these strategic points: (1&2) Limitations in time and money forced us to travel light and cheap, and to integrate our community work with the rest of our lives in an enjoyable way. We integrated new teamwork tools (Dropbox, Trello) in addition to e-mail. Team meetings take place in labs, cafés, and (unsurprisingly) bars. Google groups and Facebook were indispensable for communicating with the CAMBAM community through a mailing list, discussion forums, and for general member management. Finally, for outside marketing, the McGill IT did an outstanding job giving us a super-flexible WordPress blog. (3) To unite the disparate parts of CAMBAM – not only on paper but in reality – we realized we actually had to bring the CAMBAM community right to the different geographical locations of CAMBAM. We made a point of holding events located in the home department of the speaker. It was interesting to see new laboratories and work environments, and, more importantly, it further exposed the student chapter to CAMBAM students.Also, we were proactive in terms of making contacts and turning those contacts into active participants. Fostering other students’ participation allows them to become multipliers who look out for potential new students and communicate events to their respective research environments. Some even became fully active organizers (FS and MC) bringing large doses of fun, new ideas and drive to our initiative. At the risk of pointing out the obvious – this approach also sets all the parameters for a snowball effect.

Perhaps the most significant decision was to frankly address point (4). We intentionally eschewed the regular seminar series format – seminars have their place in academia, but there are enough of them. They also do not really support the growth of connections between people in the audience – most of the time, there is one person speaking, and with luck, the two to five usual suspects get a word in. An important question we ask ourselves each time we host an event is “Will it allow participants to connect based on their research interests?” To address this point, we decided on different event formats. At our challenge seminars, speakers bring difficult data sets, modeling challenges or project ideas to discuss. After an initial period of 20-30 minutes, the audience enters a moderated discussion with the speaker, giving comments, suggestions or asking “the important questions”. Method sessions allow sharing of mathematical or computational methods amongst CAMBAM students. We’ve also implemented on-site visits, in the spirit of “field trips”, in which we visit laboratories that use quantitative methods for biomedical research, allowing participants to explore new environments for the application of quantitative methods and have a great group experience. “Interaction” is our guiding principle, down to the details: we book rooms for an extra 30 minutes, which allows people to chat and sketch ideas on the whiteboard following the session. We also incorporate a lunch break into our events so that people have the chance to discuss over pizza and/or coffee. We extensively prepare and moderate many of our sessions – the moderator plays a particularly important role during the challenge seminar format, encouraging everyone to avoid slipping into the standard seminar format that we have internalized during years of careful academic schooling.

One last strategic decision suggested by CAMBAM’s founding director Michael C. Mackey: No faculty allowed! The resulting change of atmosphere from formal to colloquial is hard to believe – time and time again.

So, what have we accomplished since March 2011? 5 Challenge seminars, 5 method sessions, 3 whole day events, two of which were on-site visits (Montreal Clinical Research Institute and Montreal Laboratory for Ultrasonography and Biorheology), and 1 student session with a guest from industry. After a recent competition for CAMBAM student funding, a conservative estimate of the number of currently active members is around 30, all contacts number around 60. Students from all levels of study – from Undergraduates to PostDocs – participate.

A note to PIs: while we are experiencing great moral and material support from CAMBAM’s directors, small but crucial contributions from PIs often make a difference. Relaying e-mails to students or giving the e-mail addresses of new students takes two to four minutes of time. For a PI’s students, such simple acts can determine whether they are involved in a community or not, so taking that little time makes a great difference to a community such as ours.

Some wisdom from along the way:

  • Build the community on something that is relevant for its members – a well-posed problem will get more people involved than bowling alley and pitchers.
  • Do not control people, but support the development of their ideas. Some ideas seem a little strange at first. Try to understand them and give them space – if you add constructively to them, you will go somewhere. If you suppress them, you stop the train.
  • Align your activities with your goals. Your time and force is limited. Especially in the beginning, you have to avoid frustration from doing stuff that does not push your goals.
  • Do what works now, don’t build a general solution. Do not build an online forum that can handle >100 users if only 5 people come to your events. Work on your events instead.
  • Create opportunities for others: a major motivation of our initiative is to put people in the best position to realize their tools, training, and talents for their success. This success will feed back to the overall community.
  • One case to be forceful is when you want to do something different from the way it is usually done. In our case, in every session again, we have to enforce interactivity by moderation – otherwise our sessions degrade into “yet another seminar series”.

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