Careers, Podcasts

Podcast – ISTAART PIA to Elevate Early Career Researchers

Hosted by Dr Anna Volkmer

Reading Time: 21 minutes

In this bonus episode, Dr Anna Volkmer talks with four people who are heading up a new Alzheimer’s Association ISTAART PIA to Elevate Early Career Researchers (PEERS).

Adam Smith, from University College London, changes chairs from host of the show to panellist, as Chair of the new PIA. Alongside Adam we have his co-applicants and Executive Committee Members – Dr Beth Shaaban, Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Pittsburgh (PIA Vice Chair), Dr James Quinn, Research Fellow from Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Neurology (PIA Programs Chair) and Dr Naiara Demnitz, Postdoctoral researcher at the Danish Research Centre for Magnetic Resonance (PIA Communications Chair).

This new PIA aims to:

  • Encourage young people and undergraduates to consider a career in dementia research, and act to inspire and support them to remain in the field. Working to challenge funders and institutions to deliver improvements and improve ECR careers.
  • Establish and maintain a supportive ECR network to share ideas and collaborate, discuss and troubleshoot career challenges, and gain leadership experience through officer and committee roles.
  • Develop multi-media online content to support the personal and career development of ECRs.

To find out more visit the ISTAART website.

Over the next few weeks as the Executive Committee information is finalised, there will be various opportunities to become involved in the PIAs leadership and work.

AAIC Neuroscience Next Conference (9th – 10th November 2020) registrants are invited to join ISTAART at a special 50% off rate. Use coupon code AAICNN50 at checkout (Coupon valid for AAIC Neuroscience Next registrants and new members only. Discounts reflected upon checkout.)


Click here to read a full transcript of this podcast

Voice Over:

Welcome to the NIHR Dementia Researcher podcast brought to you by dementiaresearcher.nihr.ac.uk, in association with Alzheimer’s Research UK and Alzheimer’s Society, supporting early career dementia researchers across the world.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

Hello, I’m Dr. Anna Volkmer, and I’m delighted to be your host for this week’s show. I’m sure you’ve heard from me before, but if you’re new to our podcast, I’m a Speech and Language Therapy Researcher at University College London, helping people live with Dementia and address language and communication difficulties. As an early career researcher, I know first-hand how difficult but rewarding this career choice can be. The NIHR and charities here in the UK have been doing their bit to help ECRs, providing funding, training, and career support. And in the U.S., The Alzheimer’s Association International Society to Advance Alzheimer’s Research and Treatment, or ISTAART for short, convenes the Global Alzheimer’s and Dementia Science Community. Members share knowledge, fuel collaboration, and advance research to find more effective ways to detect, treat, and prevent Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Within ISTAART, they have Professional Interest Areas or PIAs, and it’s an exciting development within this space today that we’re going to talk about.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

So, I’m going to welcome my guests, Adam Smith, also sometimes our host of the podcast. So, no pressure on me to do a good job. We also have Dr. James Quinn, a Research Fellow from Massachusetts General Hospital, Department of Neurology. Hi, James. We have Dr. Beth Shaaban, Post-doctoral Fellow at University of Pittsburgh. Hi, Beth.

Dr Beth Shaaban:

Good morning.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

And we’ve got Dr. Naiara Demnitz, a post-doctoral Researcher at the Danish Research Center for Magnetic Resonance, the DRCMR. Hello, Naiara.

Dr Naiara Demnitz:

Hey, Anna.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

So, hello everyone. Thank you for joining us today. So, Adam, James, Beth, and Naiara, I’m going to start by asking you to introduce yourselves. So, Adam, perhaps I can come to you first, as well.

Adam Smith:

Are you feeling the pressure Anna?

Dr Anna Volkmer:

Little bit, can you tell?

Adam Smith:

I’d be slightly nervous because we usually… This is the other way around. Well, thank you very much for introducing me, Anna. So, I’m Adam Smith, I’m the Program Director in the Office of the National Director for Dementia Research at University College, London. I am responsible for various things, that are the activities related to delivering the Prime Minister’s 2020 challenge on Dementia in the UK. To try and improve how research is delivered. And I also undertake my own research, and as part of my job I created this website, dementia researcher.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

Thank you, Adam. Perhaps we come to James next?

Dr James Quinn:

Hello. So, I’m James Quinn, a Research Fellow in the Alzheimer’s Clinical and Translational Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. I did my PhD in the UK at the University of Manchester before moving over to the U.S., back last year. And essentially, I research neuro peptides as potential diagnostic biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease, and really try and unpack why they’re getting dysregulated using molecular and cell biology techniques. So, we’re working lots in the lab and that’s where I am today. Got some experiments running during the podcast as well.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

That’s pretty exciting. Thank you very much James. So, we’ll come to Beth next.

Dr Beth Shaaban:

I realised earlier, I should have said good morning or good afternoon or good evening as the case may be in our now interconnected world. I am at the University of Pittsburgh, where I’m a Post-doctoral Fellow in the Graduate School of Public Health. My work uses a population neuroscience framework to study the vascular contributions to cognitive impairment and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. And what that means is that I integrate the methods of epidemiology and biostatistics with neuroscience and psychology methods so that we can improve neuroscience studies. Make them larger, make them draw more appropriate inferences, and be generalisable to populations that we care about. I’m also affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, working in their outreach, recruitment and engagement corps.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

Fantastic. Thank you, Beth. And last of all, Naiara.

Dr Naiara Demnitz:

Hi, I am Naiara Demnitz. I’m a postdoc at the Danish Research Center for Magnetic Resonance, which is a research institute at the university hospital of Hvidovre, which I’m definitely mispronouncing. And it’ll take about six months before I can learn how to say it. I’m a cognitive neuroscientist and I study how different lifestyle factors might help promote healthy brain aging. I’m particularly interested in physical activity, and whether men and women might respond differently to physical activity interventions.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

Exciting. Well, thank you very much. One of the best things about hosting these podcasts is I get to meet new and interesting people doing very exciting research. Adam, I’m going to ask you today perhaps to share the big news before we get chatting, if you could.

Adam Smith:

Yeah, no, build up there. The reason why we’re here today, James, Naiara, Beth and I, is because the four of us collaborated to submit an application to ISTAART and the PIA that you mentioned earlier, to create a new one. And we were excited to hear last month that has been approved. So, we’re here today because we’re essentially letting everybody know about a new PIA called the PIA to Elevate Early Career Researchers or PEERS for short. We are hoping to share what that does, and what we hope to achieve through that PIA, and then encourage other people to get involved over the coming years.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

So, why did you get together to do this? Can you tell me a bit about how it came about, Adam?

Adam Smith:

Of course. So, the number of students and early career researchers working in the field of dementia has grown over the last 12 years. And it gets hard to go to a conference now and not realise that the average age of the people in the room is much lower than it was five or 10 years ago. But despite this, we know that there are still five times fewer researchers choosing to work in dementia compared to cancer. And also, as well, rather sadly, about 70% of early career researchers leave within four years after their PhD. And the statistics are even worse when you start to look at different gender split on that loss as well. So, we thought we needed to identify why this is going wrong, why people are leaving, and start to have a look at the post-doc transition post PhD.

Adam Smith:

And in order to beat dementia, we also know that we needed to attract more people and retain more scientists to dementia as well. So, this is where the PIA came about. I know we’ll go on later to talk about its main objectives. But there are other PIAs already exist that have an element of early career support to them. But we wanted to take a more holistic and wider view beyond the individual research fields to understand the details behind this challenge and to develop solutions to try and attract people to dementia. And to support and retain those people in the field.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

Brilliant. Well, I’ve certainly benefited from some of the early career researcher initiatives, so I think this is a great idea. So, Beth, I’m going to come to you next because I know you’ve been involved in ISTAART for some time. So, you’ve got experience of working in other PIAs. So, could you tell us a bit more in general about what ISTAART is and about these PIAs?

Dr Beth Shaaban:

Sure. So, ISTAART is the group that puts on the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference each year, and it’s a membership organisation to bring together the international scientific community that is studying Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. And I think my first attendance at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference may have been in London in fact. And so, I’ve been affiliated with ISTAART for several years now. And at first, I got involved in the vascular cognitive disorders professional interest area, and I’ve been very involved with that group since I joined, ISTAART. And it was a really great experience for me where I got to meet other early career researchers, but also people who were more advanced in their career who could informally mentor me. The year that I attended there was a breakout workshop that… When we were involved and we discussed the contributions of cerebral small vessel disease to Alzheimer’s disease, everyone who attended that workshop was then invited to work on a paper of the proceedings, and I was able to be involved in that. And that was a really great experience.

Dr Beth Shaaban:

So, I’ve met a lot of new people that way, and that professional interest area does have early career research representatives built into their executive committee, which is really nice. And then in the past year, I have just gotten involved with the diversity professional interest area. And that is because my research area is taking a little bit of a turn towards something that Naiara mentioned a few minutes ago. So, I’m excited to learn that we have this in common Naiara. I’m particularly interested in sex and gender differences in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. And so, I’ve become more involved in the diversity of PIA and a particular interest group that’s looking at sex and gender differences. That as well has been a very good experience. And each professional interest area seems to be set up a little bit differently. And so, for that interest group, we’ve been having working group meetings once a month for the past several months to think about what our priorities are and what we would like to do moving forward.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

Right. As a slightly rare Speech and Language Therapist in dementia, there’s not many of me. I can see that’s common across many dementia researchers, that you’re often out on your own a little bit. So, networking and bringing people together is incredibly valuable. And I can see that. What will your role be in this PIA?

Dr Beth Shaaban:

So, in this PIA, I will be the vice chair of the executive committee. And so that involves basically a two-year term where I can assist with anything that Adam will need. I don’t think he got to mention that he will be the chair of the executive committee. And so, I’ll serve that term, and then at the end of that time, I would become the chair. For example, if we were to have any workshops or small research sessions, I think that Adam would chair that, and I would be available to help with that. We’re really excited to get started. I’m game to do anything to help support start the PIA.

Adam Smith:

Yeah, I didn’t mention that before. I’m going to be taking the role of the chair for this first term. It does really feel like an expansion of some of the things we’ve started elsewhere, like through the dementia researcher website and podcast. I’m sure Naiara will talk about this in a while, but some of the things that we plan to do are scaling up some of the things that we’ve already been doing, but also trying to bring in more countries across the world and to expand that definitely.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

Thank you. I think we’ve caught James between experiments. And so, I’m going to ask James a few questions now while we’ve got him. James, could you perhaps tell us some more of the long or short term aims of this PIA?

Dr James Quinn:

Yeah. So, it’s really exciting to be involved in this. It’s the first thing I want to say. I think we were really trying to target the PIA to fit unmet needs that currently early career researchers face. And we know there’s a lot of issues around really getting a good global network. We’ve seen that with the most recent Alzheimer’s Association Conference. I think the fifth most attended country was Brazil. And I didn’t know a single researcher in Brazil because quite often with these international conferences, they’re really hard to get to. But with it all going virtual, that’s definitely made it a lot more accessible and I’ve been able to meet some potential collaborators who work in Brazil, which is really exciting. So, that’s definitely one of the main goals is to really grow the membership in these kinds of underrepresented countries.

Dr James Quinn:

So, we are going to be looking for some continent-specific chairs. So if that’s something that you’re interested in, please get in contact with us because we are looking for people who are really interested in developing the early career research network within their own country and the countries that surrounding them. So, we really want to look at developing some new webinars around career advice and create a good online platform. As Adam was saying, an extension of what’s being done in the UK with dementia researcher and some of the work that the Alzheimer’s Association do. So, really pull together a big list of available fellowships, travel grants, and it will allow our early career researchers to come in and find potential international collaborators as well.

Dr James Quinn:

Because as you mentioned, Anna, about the speech and language therapy, it’s the same thing for what I do in these niche biomarkers. There are probably five groups that are working on this particular medicine, biomarkers, and I know all of those groups and it would be really nice to meet the early career research network and within those individual groups. So, I think the real key things are really trying to develop the membership around the world and really get a good global reach. Get lots of feedback from early career researchers in those countries to identify some of those issues that they face. I know Naiara was going to talk a little bit about this later, and attend relevant conferences, especially with them all going online, that’ll become a lot easier. And then having individual countries-specific researchers developing a network within their base and then spreading that out.

Dr James Quinn:

And I should add, I’ll talk a little bit about my role within the PIA as well. So, I’m going to be-

Dr Anna Volkmer:

And James, while you do that, I just wanted to say, you mentioned about that listeners should get in touch.

Dr James Quinn:

Yes.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

As you talk about your role, could you also tell the listeners how they could get in touch and who to get in touch with?

Dr James Quinn:

Yeah. I’ll leave Adam to answer that question. I think he will be the best person to answer the question. I know you can, you can join through the ISTAART website, so you have to become an ISTAART member and there’s a really easy way of getting in touch that way. But I think Adam will be able to answer more specifically around specific mechanisms for getting in touch.

Dr James Quinn:

So, my role is going to be as the programs chair. Again, t’s a two-year term and essentially this is really the lead for developing these online conferences that we talked about. The potential sessions at the different conferences. So, at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, and really just trying to push both the scientific outreach that we do and the educational outreach that we do.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

That’s exciting. Thank you.

Adam Smith:

Can I just add to that? I think James covered those really well in detail. There were three key high-level objectives, which when you submit a PIA application for anybody who’s thinking about doing this themselves, they ask you to set out what your overarching aims are. And the first one we’d set out was, as I mentioned at the start, to try and encourage more people to consider and inspire them to choose to want to work in dementia as well. And as James mentioned, we realised that’s going to look different in different countries. So, having a representation from each of the different continents, or subcontinents, is something we’ll look at when we set up the executive committee for this PIA in the coming months, is to bring in those subcontinents to get that local flavour.

Adam Smith:

And realise that then there’s an opportunity to develop local objectives that are relevant to that country when it comes to this. Because, that might mean encouraging more PhD students in one part of the world or in other places, trying to address these bottlenecks that we have at the moment where people come out of their PhD and there are lacks of opportunities to move on through fellowships. And I think one of the things that we realised ourselves is that there is very little data out there that looks at this field as a whole, in terms of how many PhD students are there? How much funding really is invested into early career researchers in different parts of the world? And where do these drop-offs occur? So, trying to gather some of this data up, so we can produce materials and reports and things like Alzheimer’s Disease International do, that we can then present these back to research funders and to health authorities and governments to encourage them and to provide evidence they need to better support this field that we work in.

Adam Smith:

And apart from that as well is this, rather than the other PIAs looking at different research areas is to focus on careers rather than on specific research. And developing those tools that people will find useful. I know through dementia research, some of our most popular podcasts and blogs and things have been about how to write good grant applications, and things like that. And if we can bring together some people to collaborate through the PIA on things like funding applications, or sharing their advice that they’ve learned from progressing themselves, to get some of the most successful people to talk to some of the new people in the field. And encourage some of that networking and collaboration through online tools, physical conferences that we’re talking about going to. I think if we can achieve some of that in the first two years, while I’m chair, I’ll feel like I’ve done a good job and will be very happy with that.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

Well, you’ve achieved so much with the NIHR dementia. Your fantastic and passionate leadership. I know that it’s really expanded the network and I myself have been involved for a couple of years and it’s just created so many opportunities for me. So, I think it’s very exciting that you’re pushing this across the whole world now. It’s really exciting.

Adam Smith:

It’s great that this is actually finally becoming important. Researcher careers is high up on the agenda now. Most funders and institutions are thinking about what support they can put in place. I saw an open funding call from the research council in Australia this last week of that’s one of their main aims about how you support ECRs working within it. I’m collaborating on a grant application to try and do more in other parts of the world as well. It’s an exciting time, but you just feel like there’s still a lot to do.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

But it’s inspiring as well, and very hopeful. Thank you. And Naiara, what inspired you to come up with the PIA?

Dr Naiara Demnitz:

So, when I first heard about this through Adam, I was in Dublin and I was coming to the end of my first year of my first post-doc. So, it was a post-doc that was a one-year contract, as many are. And at the time I was applying for my second post-doc and most of these were also one or two years. So, I had been thinking a lot about the unreliability of this early career stage and talking to a lot of my colleagues who were also going through this. My partner as well. So, when I heard about this idea of a PA that was just catered for supporting and creating new resources for early career researchers, I thought, “There is so much demand for this amongst my colleagues.” We talk about this all the time and there’s a lot of appetite for it. So, as soon as I heard about it from Adam, I thought it was a brilliant idea and I was keen to get involved.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

Brilliant. And what will your role be on this new PIA?

Dr Naiara Demnitz:

So, I’ll be communication chair, which has the name suggests, I’ll be working on the communication, which can both be… Well, first I see it as a communication with the members, so with the early career researchers who will hopefully all be joining us. And I think this will be really important at the start because as James and Adam said, we really want to design some resources, be it webinars or online resource workshops, that really cater to what the ECRs want or have an appetite for. And to do that, we really need to have a really good communication with them first, where they can tell us what exactly they need.

Dr Naiara Demnitz:

So, I think that I see this as a very first stage, establishing that communication, hearing from them, what would be most helpful. And I think a second part of the communication, which will also be important, will be communication, communicating with the other PIAs. So, as Beth mentioned, there are a lot of topic-based groups and they’re super helpful and they’re well-established and they already organize lots of events. And they are early career researchers who are already members of that. So, it would be great for us to also communicate across these groups so that we can really make sure that we’re taking the full advantage of everything that these PIAs can offer.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

Yeah. So, that is particularly helpful that Beth sits across a few other PIAs.

Dr Naiara Demnitz:

Absolutely.

Dr Anna Volkmer:

So that you can make these connections. That’s really, really helpful. Well, Adam, what happens next then? What would you like the listeners to do? How can they get in touch?

Adam Smith:

So, we’re still working with Claire Sexton and the team at ISTAART to bottom out the logistics and the practicalities. We are currently working the kind of document that’s a bit like our terms of reference. I can’t remember the official name of it. There’s a document that sets out exactly what we’ll do, which we’re working on at the moment. And as part of that, we do have to define who will be in the executive committee. So, the four of us are fulfilling the standard roles that every PIA is required. And what we’re starting to look at now is those, as I mentioned before, these sub-continent representatives. And I think there will be lots of opportunities to get involved in some of that small group, working with some specific tasks and finish projects. And one of the very first things, as I said we want to do is to devise a large international survey to start to capture the voices of early career researchers across the world, to understand what they feel the barriers are, what they find helpful to identify existing resources and good practice across the country, so we can to bring that in.

Adam Smith:

But also, as well, I think what we learned from that survey will help inform some of our longer-term goals as well. So, opportunities now are probably to… First of all, if you’re not a member of ISTAART you should definitely go join. Just for this group as well, there are lots of benefits to being in ISTAART. You get access to some online journals; you get a reduced-price ticket for the AAIC and longer to submit abstracts. There are the online communities and the PIAs. I think they’ve got a whole bunch of careers tools is there. And we’re working with them at the moment, because I know they’re keen to look at their mentoring programs and things. So, join ISTAART. And I think as we launch this, today is the first day of the Neuroscience Next Conference that they’ve organised, and I think if you join up today or tomorrow you also get a reduced price. I want to say 50%. I’m looking around to see if anybody else nods at me. Yep. 50%.

Adam Smith:

So, it’s half price if you join in the next day or two. Details of all the PIAs are on the website. You can join as many as you like. And I think opportunities to get involved in their work are really open to your capacity or willingness or interest to get involved. As Beth’s obviously been amazing at getting involved in some of those. I’ve been a member of them for quite a while, and I’ve never done other than passive participation, which is, if that’s all you’ve got time to do, that’s there. The things that they produce are free to use. So, go to the website, you can tick the boxes to say which PIAs you want to join up in. And we’ll probably announce at our first meeting, the roles that we’re looking for through the ISTAART newsletter sometime in the coming month.

Adam Smith:

And I think if you’re not a member of ISTAART at the moment, follow ISTAART on Twitter and it is just @ISTAART. And I think announcements and opportunities will be going through their Twitter feed as well. And as I said, one of the first things will be set up this small group to devise this survey. Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to put some publications out of this as well and produce some advice that we can send up to the Department of Health or Alzheimer’s Research UK, Alzheimer’s Association to say, “Look, these are the changes that we need in our career paths.”

Dr Anna Volkmer:

Go to the website. Oh, no. Do you ever sleep, Adam?

Adam Smith:

Sorry. Have I been sending you emails late at night, again?

Dr Anna Volkmer:

No. I’m just amazed by the amount of work and the number of things that you do to promote early career research and researchers. It’s really awe inspiring and exciting and it makes us all want to be involved and keep being involved. So, go to the website. So, I’d like to thank our panellists, Adam, Naiara, Beth, and James. We’ve got profiles on all our panellists on the website, including details of their Twitter handles. So, if you want to ask them any questions you can do so. And if any of our listeners have questions, we’ve also got a really busy WhatsApp community group where early stage PhD students will find a really supportive community and details on how to join can be found on our website. We will also include details on how to get involved in the PIA in the text with this podcast. So finally, please remember to like, subscribe, and leave a review of this podcast through our website, iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, Podbean, and SoundCloud, and all the other places that you can find podcasts. Thank you very much.

Adam Smith:

Thank you.

Dr Beth Shaaban:

Thanks for hosting, Anna.

Dr Naiara Demnitz:

Thank you.

Dr James Quinn:

Thanks, Anna.

Voice Over:

Brought to you by dementiaresearcher.NIHR.ac.uk. In association with Alzheimer’s Research UK and Alzheimer’s Society, supporting early career dementia researchers across the world.

END


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