eLife Ambassadors

The Ambassadors Programme uses eLife to bring scientists together and empower them to make changes...
15 March 2022

Interview with 

Ailis O’Carroll, eLife, & Aalok Varma National Centre for Biological Sciences


Good vibes only sign


eLife is more than just a ground breaking digital journal. Ten years on from when the initiative launched, eLife has continued to actively seek out ways to confront the challenges that science and research present internationally, right through from overhauling the peer review process to a focus on early career scientists and scientific careers. One strand of that is the Ambassadors Programme, which uses the journal’s international reach and standing to bring scientists together around the world and empower them to make beneficial changes to things they perceive as needing a shake up. So how are they getting on? Chris Smith spoke with Ailis O’Carroll, eLife’s Community Manager, and Aalok Varma, who previously participated as an Ambassador...

Ailis - eLife has an ambitious agenda to reform research communication. What we've realized is we actually have to look into what is going on with research culture and what we need is the voices from all of the research community around the world. We've decided to create an ambassador program where we invite early career researchers, from around the world, to get involved to see what is wrong with research culture, what can we change, and how can we make it more inclusive for everyone?

Chris - And once you've identified people to come on the program, what do they actually do?

Ailis - From the 350 applicants, we have 128 ambassadors. They're from 51 countries around the globe, the most diverse we've had so far. The ambassadors will engage in the training phase, which is 8 to 10 months of learning and community building, which we think is really crucial. The ambassadors have the drive and the passion to make change, but we will provide them with the tips, the tricks and the network. After those 10 months, which will bring us to around September this year, we'll do another 12 months a year of activism where we raise awareness about issues in research culture, the barriers that people may be experiencing and come up with solutions.

Chris - Tell us a bit about the kinds of people that applied. What level of their career were they at? Was it more women than men? Or about the same?

Ailis - Everyone from people who have just graduated, just starting their PhDs, right through to people who are up to 5 years. We had half women and half men. It's been a really diverse group and we've been able to select ambassadors who will bring forward experiences and voices to the table who haven't really had their voices heard before.

Chris - I know you've said that there's this phase of activism where they do community building, but what's actually involved in that? If I were on your program, what would you be empowering me to do?

Ailis - If you were extremely interested in sustainability in the lab for example, throughout the training phase, you would learn tips and tricks from different organizations and speakers who have come on board, you would connect to a network of like-minded people, your group then can push forward change based on your community needs. That can be so dependent on what is needed. It could be sending emails across to your university, it could be creating a resource sheet, it could be staging an event or a symposium. It will really depend on the group and Aalok can actually say a lot more about this as he was an ambassador.

Chris - Yes. What was your experience?

Aalok - When I signed up for the ambassador's program, I was actually going through a rough patch in my PhD and I didn't know what I was gonna do. I just took a chance and joined the program. There was a group, as Ailis was saying, which worked on sustainability and raising awareness of how research labs use up a lot of plastic, for example. Of course, it's important to try and control our plastic usage, and what they did was ambassadors got together and they did a #labplasticday on Twitter, where they urged everyone to just collect all the plastic that they have used on one day, and wait, and take a photo of themselves holding all the garbage that they produce in one day. Soon you realise that it's a staggering amount of plastic that we used in our lab spaces all the time. Another example was a meta research study that I was a part of. Meta research is all about studying how science is done. The project that we did was about looking at how papers report images. If you're looking at something, you want to know how big it is. Whether it's a cell or an elephant or a plant or whatever it might be, you need to have scale bars. Not everyone is colour sighted, there are people who are colour blind. We assessed papers that are published to try and ask 'how well are images reported in these papers?' We found that less than 20% of papers, regardless of field, actually follow good practices in reporting images. We try and find ways to look at an introspect as a community, to figure out what we are doing wrong and how can we improve it?

Chris - So Ailis in essence, you're using the international reach and power of eLife as well as the fact that science is an international language and a community to create a sort of hub that people can come to and really they're setting the tempo, by the sound of it. They're coming up with some of the priorities they're coming up also with the solutions.

Ailis - I think that remote working and virtual networking comes with its problems, but it also comes with this great advantage that we can connect all around the world and push forward solutions. I'm excited for this program because there are so many driven and passionate researchers around the world who are coming together. And the knock on effect of that, I think it'll really make a big change this year.

Aalok - Scientists are not one dimensional people, they're not just spending all their time in the lab. They have interests and hobbies to connect, not just on a scientific level, but on a personal level with scientists across the world, with something I managed to get an opportunity to do by this program. I'm really thankful for that.

Chris - Ailis, one of the things that's often levelled as a criticism at engagement programs is how you measure success. How are you judging whether this is working?

Ailis - Particularly in science, where we depend on tangible results, we can publish the various papers on awareness, create resources, we can make websites. But if the impact is not felt on the personal level of researchers, I think that we're not doing our job properly. What we've done is we've sent surveys and we'll send surveys every quarter of the year, just to check in on everyone. We'll also have social meetups where people can express how they're feeling and how they feel like the program is impacting them.

Chris - Any learning points? Anything that when you went into this, you thought you would do it a certain way, you ended up doing it a different way?

Ailis - I guess one big one was the fact that we knew that we couldn't select all 350 applicants. It felt very wrong to say, 'okay, thank you very much'. We've now set up another program called the 'open science champions' program. From us, seeing that we couldn't include everyone, we've now actually turned that on it's head to make a much more inclusive network now, which is great.


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