Nurturing chemists will soon bear fruit

An image showing a gardener

Source: © M-H Jeeves

For even better results, fill your watering can with coffee

Prof. A: All these projects we dream up and our group members fulfill, do you ever worry that they won’t be useful?

Prof. B: Oh of course, but even if the projects never make it anywhere, we’ll always have our impact on training students.

I was in the middle of my postdoctoral fellowship when I came across the above interaction on chemistry Twitter. At first, I felt a little disappointed. I fantasised about one day being ‘Prof. C’, and chiming in with ‘If you two feel that way, send your resources over to me and I’ll make something useful out of them.’ I expected professors to be as bold as the introductions to their grants and papers, which state how important their research area is, and how the fruits of the research will make a positive impact on the world! After all, if academics are going to spend research money taxed from teachers, nurses and truck drivers, we had better set our sights on discovering something tangible to give back to them. Shouldn’t the chief purpose of a research group be to make the most and best contributions to science and society?

I started to question this assumption during my postdoc. I moved to a faraway country a 10 hour flight away from my girlfriend and spent my spare time doing experiments, writing papers, learning techniques and applying for funding, all in service of the dream of becoming a professor. One day I felt a loss of momentum; my interest turned from the day’s to-do list to larger, more philosophical questions. Would I be a good professor? What does it mean to be a good professor? What is the chief purpose of an academic research group?

I came across an essay by Uri Alon, a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. In it, Alon posits that the chief purpose of a research group is to nurture its members as scientists and as people. In a results-focused research group, professors risk regarding students as a means to an end. This can lead to frustration with the student during the inevitable unproductive periods, causing the professor–student relationship to decay. By contrast, the nurturing research group prioritises the growth and development of the student. As Alon puts it, ‘In this [nurturing] schema, the typical meandering of research is seen as an integral part of our craft, rather than a nuisance.’ Supporting students through this meandering can reveal new research opportunities that may be even more worthwhile to pursue.

People, not papers, are the most important outputs of a research group

I was taken aback at how warm and human this idea is. Its spirit was a pleasant contrast to my day-to-day grind of 1000% focus on making as good and as many scientific contributions as possible. Now I see the wisdom of Prof. B: sure, let’s do our best to make contributions, but let’s make nurturing our priority. After all, while scientific contributions have potential to make a positive impact on society, training and nurturing definitely have immediate and lasting impact on students’ lives.

I now think of the research group as a garden and its members as plants. Plants are distinct from each other (and their distinctions make the garden beautiful!); they have different needs for water, sun and shade. Students too have different needs, and just like plants, they have various ideal outcomes – not all students will go on to become professors, or even chemists. Nurturing environments will help students to thrive no matter their next occupation.

Instead of a professor thinking, ‘What productivity can I squeeze out of my students?’, they could think, ‘What capacities can I build into my students? What’s best for their growth and development?’ After all, this is supposed to be training; students and postdocs aren’t just meat robots that pipet, analyse, and purify. A professor who is chiefly committed to discoveries and papers might get them, but the students will suffer. The research group garden might bear some fruit in the short term, but at the expense of the long-term health of the plants. If you commit to nurturing your students, you’ll still get discoveries and great papers, and your students will blossom into the best scientists and people they can be. People, not papers, are the most important outputs of a research group.

Establishing a nurturing culture in a research group is a responsibility that falls to professors, but students and postdocs can play their part too, by encouraging each other’s growth and development. Remember, students and postdocs, you are in training, so expect to be nurtured! If you’re a plant that needs to be watered more, or needs some sun, ask for it. By nurturing each other, we can cultivate lush, vibrant research group gardens full of first-rate scientists and people.