Interview: Addressing problems in public

Nic Schmelling (@DerSchmelling) is a PhD student working in the lab of Synthetic Microbiology at University of Düsseldorf, Germany. He recently set up CyanoWorld as an open resource to facilitate the sharing of information between members of his research community. I caught up with him to discuss the role ECRs can play in improving the way science is conducted, and the importance of stepping up to make yourself heard.

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Nicholas Schmelling (image taken from Twitter)

What are you working on?

I’m interested in the evolution of circadian clocks and how it is shaped by the changes in the earth-moon system. My work is purely computational as I’m using computer programs that can evolve and self-replicate to derive principles about the evolution of circadian clocks.

Why did you join the eLife ambassador program?

I’ve been a protocols.io ambassador for over a year now and it has been an amazing experience. Benjamin Schwessinger, who is also a protocols.io ambassador, told me some interesting things the eLife ambassador program is doing, e.g. the reproducibility workshops and support for ECR, which got me interested in joining the program. I have the feeling that the research ecosystem could use a remodeling and I’m passionate about shaping this future. Joining an ambassador program led by an institution, which itself is challenging how the publishing system is working, was a logical consequence. The determination of the ambassadors to question the status quo, to address problems, and to find solutions for it is contagious and inspiring.

Can you tell us a bit about CyanoWorld?

So we try to build an online community and information databases around cyanobacterial research. First, we want to bring cyanobacterial researchers together to share ideas, problems, and their knowledge with each other to increase the pace and quality of cyanobacterial research. Furthermore, we want to aggregate freely available data, knowledge, protocols, basically, anything about cyanobacteria to build better resources and databases, which enable this quality of research we envision. Last but probably most important we want to empower ECRs in the field of cyanobacteria wherever we can.

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CyanoWorld. Image taken from https://www.protocols.io/groups/cyano-world

How did the idea come about?

Last summer, a colleague of mine and I were organizing a conference for ECRs working with cyanobacteria. One of the biggest challenges was to reach as many ECRs as possible. It turned out that there was no online community or mailing list available to spread the news. The only real option we had was contacting PIs in the hope of forwarding this information to their PhD students and we all know how likely it is that you forward conference information from someone you do not know. So, we relied mainly on our PI’s network.

I thought we could use this conference and this experience to get some ideas about how to change this issue. So I organized a small workshop during the conference to talk about challenges and future directions of cyanobacterial research. And we did talk. A lot. We were a group of only ten ECRs but we identified a list of challenges including missing reproducible protocols, lack of information about research group if one needs help, or simply lack of information channels, which let in the end to the founding of CyanoWorld.

What has been the biggest challenge?

I think the biggest hurdle was taking the first step and addressing these problems publicly.

I believe a lot of us see problems in the field we are working in or in science itself and we all have ideas of how to solve them. However, most of us are hesitating to do something about it. Identifying a problem and then openly addressing this issue was probably the biggest challenge so far for us. Putting your name out there with an idea takes a lot of courage as you make yourself vulnerable to other opinions. But I can only encourage anyone with an idea to step up and do something. Most likely it will go unnoticed at first, trust me. I know now.

What are your future plans for it?

We started by setting up a group on protocols.io, which allows us to have a protocol repository, information channels, and forums to discuss ideas and problems. Anyone interested can join and engage in the community. The next steps will be setting up a landing page for CyanoWorld and first link to external resources like CyanoBase.

Future projects, which we’ll tackle once we’re a critical mass and have acquired some funding, include aggregating similar protocols in our repository to SOPs and building a matchmaker to find, for example, a collaboration partner.

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This image was produced by BASF and obtained from Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/basf/7629005292/in/photolist-cC9Du1-nekwuH-83bzYP-nxgJeP-nM8XvZ-nfNHPB-nCRy5f-nEXHeH) it is reproduced under a CC-BY-ND-NC 2.0 license

How can others get involved?

The idea of CyanoWorld is to build a place with useful resources for the research community. But it lives and dies with the engagement of an active community. Anyone can get involved by sharing their protocols, answering questions, promoting research finding or other news on the platform. CyanoWorld is basically for the cyanobacterial research community by the community. Improvements and ideas on what to do next will come from the community. We want to build an ecosystem that helps where needed and makes it easier to collaborate. We believe that an open community will accelerate and improve new findings.

Twitter: @CyanoWorld1

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