Postdoctoral researchers launch support group for science students

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For researchers, juggling extensive laboratory work while dealing with stress and career navigation can be difficult. To address these issues, two UC Berkeley researchers who experienced similar challenges have created a support program to help graduate and postdoctoral students.

The program, called Thriving in Science, was created by postdoctoral researchers Troy Lionberger and Diane Wiener. Launched in September, it aims to offer diverse services for students studying life or physical sciences by giving them an environment to discuss problems and helping them find solutions to balancing work and life.

“(The program) is an inspired model for how students at all levels…can create programs that reduce stress and promote health and flourishing,” said David Presti, a campus neurobiology lecturer who serves on the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health with Lionberger, in an email. “Friendship and the support of one’s community of peers is the best antidote to the destructive aspects of stress.”

Sponsored by UC Berkeley’s California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences and the campus’s Visiting Scholar and Postdoc Affairs, the program includes peer support groups, structured discussions, assigned readings, mixers and presentations by guest speakers.

“I think support groups are a great idea for graduate students,” said Hillary Sardinas, a sixth-year campus postdoctoral student studying environmental science, policy and management.

The program’s first meeting drew approximately 140 people. At the meeting, UC Berkeley chemistry professor Judith Klinman gave a presentation on the benefits of support groups for students.

Every month, students meet in small groups to discuss different topics related to research before attending a presentation and an informal reception with the guest speaker and program participants.

Lionberger and Wiener worked in the same lab as graduate students at University of Michigan, where they both had traumatic experiences dealing with challenges affecting many researchers including the pressure to publish, competition for jobs and anxiety, according to an article published by a campus quantitative bioscience institute.

“We both felt quite isolated, and only found out about helpful resources after a crisis; these resources would have been much more helpful had we known about them before encountering difficult challenges in graduate school,” Lionberger said in a statement to the institute. “That was the first tip-off that there needed to be better support networks in place at universities.”

According to Kevin Eschleman, director of the Health and Organizational Psychology Laboratory at San Francisco State University, one of the unique aspects of the program is its extensive feedback survey. Eschleman designed the survey with his lab after being approached by Lionberger, who wanted to create a mechanism for evaluating the program’s effectiveness.

The survey, distributed to students, measures factors such as motivation, engagement and feelings of growth and learning to assess the program’s impact on students.

“When you’re dealing with people, people are complex and dynamic,” Eschleman said. “You want to make sure you’re taking as much a care as possible.”

Contact Alex Barreira at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @abarreira_dc.