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Implementing peer-learning to boost productivity and motivation during PhD training.

How a cohort of 16 PhD students enrolled in the Professional Development Program at Lund Stem Cell Center embraced a collaborative learning model to develop the key professional skills needed during their research education and in their future careers.

Lund Stem Cell Center at Lund University is a leading center for stem cell research in Sweden, consisting of 33 research groups and totaling over 250 employees; among them approximately 50 PhD students. In an effort to bring PhD students together across disciplines and to build a research community for academic and social interaction, a career development program tailored to the needs of junior PhD students was established in 2018.

This new investment, called the Professional Development Program, started as a one-year pilot for implementing a collaborative learning approach to advance the research training of PhD students at Lund Stem Cell Center. Funded by the Research School in Stem Cell Biology and the Strategic Research Area StemTherapy, the first cohort of 16 PhD students started in September 2018 with a 2-day kick-off retreat on Ven. The purpose of this was to take the first steps in a continuing process to establish a research community, engage in dialogue, and promote reflection.

jenny hansson and christine karlsson
Jenny Hansson and Christine Karlsson have been the driving force behind the development and implementation of the Professional Development Program.

Goal: encourage PhD students to take responsibility

- The Program’s central goal is to encourage PhD students to take responsibility for their professional and academic achievements through a collaborative learning, mentoring and feedback approach. The kick-off retreat was essential to create a nurturing environment and to develop a team spirit as a prerequisite to achieve the program’s goal, says Christine Karlsson, Executive Director of the Research School in Stem Cell Biology. Together with her colleague Jenny Hansson , she has been the driving force behind the development and implementation of the Professional Development Program.

The program offered the enrolled PhD students the opportunity to develop skills, experiences and knowledge that extended beyond their research topics, focusing on scientific communication, interdisciplinary collaboration, the development of a support network and initiatives promoting their career development. Christine Karlsson and Jenny Hansson have intentionally modelled key professional skills throughout the Program.

– No meeting agenda – no meeting. We have fostered effective habits around meeting techniques, academic productivity, structured communication, as well as aligning expectations and creating shared goals. These skills are not only essential in your relationship with your PhD supervisor but in all settings of professional life, says Christine Karlsson.

magdalena madej
Magdalena Madej, one of 16 PhD students who participated in the Program

"I realize how much I have evolved as a PhD student"

Magdalena Madej , one of 16 PhD students who participated in the Program, shares her personal perspectives on her journey.

- What initially drove me to apply for the Professional Development Program was to expand my repertoire of skills essential for my overall development as a scientist. However, over the course of the program, I slowly grew to realize how much I have evolved as a PhD student and what it means to be a responsible member of the scientific community.

One of the first activities provided within the program was the mentoring initiative, during which PhD students discussed and put forward their career ideas to an external academic or industrial mentor so as to get feedback and guidance. Intrigued by getting an outsider’s perspective, I participated and was astonished by the way it progressed and helped me set goals for things I would like to accomplish in my professional life. Our relationship was built on openness, sincerity and trust which allowed me not only to gain clarity in my career, but also take responsibility for all my decisions, academic and personal. The mentoring sessions were based on a dialogue where we were open to share our expectations, needs and hopes. I could honestly distil from my mentor’s experience and gain valuable insights into my career choices. I appreciated the opportunity to see and explore the ‘bigger picture’ rather than having the path laid down for me.

phd studenst lsc
The participants. Front row, from left to right: Alexandra Bäckström, Maria Jassinskaja, Ouyang Yuan and Marisse Asong. Middle row, from left to right: : Marcella Birtele, Magdalena Madej, Jonas Fritze, Anna Konturek Ciesla, Sandro Bräunig, Parashar Dhapola, Ella Quist, Jessica Giacomoni and Kristijonas Zemaitis. Row in the back, from left to right: Mohamed Eldeeb, and Niklas Krausse. Missing: Taha Sen.

- External mentors from three different faculties at Lund University, LU Innovation, Alligator Bioscience, Bioinvent and Neurovive committed to the mentor program. We are very grateful to all of them for making this investment in the future, says Christine Karlsson.

Magdalena Madej continues:

- The real turning point came during the last session of the program while discussing ways to overcome professional challenges together with other PhD students of the program. It was then that I discovered a shared interest for scientific communication. What began as an idea between peers during a group discussion, took roots and slowly developed into working towards a popular science blog. In the process, we strengthened our community through mutual dialog, trust and knowledge sharing. With the enthusiasm of everyone involved, and continued support from Christine Karlsson and Jenny Hansson, the new popular science blog Science As We Know It was launched in early 2020. The primary aim of this is to share enthusiasm and curiosity for science with the rest of the world. As a group of young scientists, we would like to make science more accessible and understandable for everyone. Our goal is to take our readers, from high school students to adults with other backgrounds, through the latest cutting-edge research with ease.

Hope to offer the program to a new cohort of PhD students

The program officially ended in October 2019 with a session focusing on reflection of the outcomes and implementation of sustainable change.

- During the final session, we encouraged the participants to start implementing change in their everyday work. Equipped with their mobile phones, we sent them on a photo walk to visualize the change process and design a framework for an action plan. We will follow up on the students’ progress at a reunion event later this year. Our major aim is to enhance our students’ professional skills beyond the borders of the Professional Development Program. Although it is difficult to evaluate the long-term impact of the program, we can see great benefits with regards to the community that has been built as a result of the program. The participants have loosened the boundaries for knowledge sharing and peer-mentoring, says Jenny Hansson. The recently started blog helps to bring together some of the participants.

- We are happy to see that the students continue to give peer-to-peer feedback through the blog posts, Jenny Hansson continues.

The Program leaders have an optimistic outlook about the future of the Professional Development Program.

- We have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from program participants and their supervisors, and hope to offer the program to a new cohort of PhD students in the near future, conclude Christine Karlsson and Jenny Hansson.

Text and contact

Christine Karlsson, PhD
Executive Director, Research School in Stem Cell Biology
Strategic Research Area StemTherapy

Jenny Hansson, PhD
Associate senior lecturer, Division of Molecular Hematology
Strategic Research Area StemTherapy

Magdalena Madej
PhD student, Division of Molecular Hematology
Strategic Research Area StemTherapy

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