Finding a scientific sense of community

by Lindsey T. Thurston

Graphic design by Emily Kate Tjan

In June 2022, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the Organization of Human Brain Mapping (OHBM) annual conference. This was many attendees’ first conference in over two years, and the excitement was palpable. I was excited to get back into conferencing and to probe the great minds of neuroimaging for new insight on my research. However, I received much more from my experience at OHBM than initially expected.

I have been fortunate to attend many conferences during graduate school, but this was my first OHBM conference. OHBM specializes in neuroimaging research using magnetic resonance imaging and similar tools to visualize the human brain. The international expertise that gathers at this conference annually is intimidating, to say the least. Yet, with every interaction I had at the conference, I felt encouraged to join this community.

What is Community?

The idea of community often comes up in science, like in “the scientific community” as a whole. It can refer to a sub-specialty of researchers or your cohort of graduate students. But community should also involve a sense of belonging,1 including feelings of acceptance, comfort to show up as yourself, and a sense of ease. 

In reflecting on what makes a community, I noticed parallels with the psychological theory of attachment style. There are three attachment styles: two insecure, anxious and avoidant, and a secure attachment style.2 Traditionally, attachment theory is applied to parent-child or romantic relationships,3 but the psychology can be broadly applied. In this analogy, a scientist with a secure community attachment might explore a new idea without fear of being wrong; ask a “silly” question at a conference without being embarrassed; or receive a manuscript rejection without taking the criticism personally. Each of these is a challenging hurdle in a scientific career that I believe is made much easier by experiencing a sense of community. 

…community should also involve a sense of belonging,
including feelings of acceptance, comfort to show up as yourself,
and a sense of ease.

The consequences of feeling a lack of belonging have been well investigated, including the negative impact on underrepresented students.3 On the other hand, feeling a sense of belonging to your field influences how you engage with your research and can positively impact your scientific output.4 Below, I consider how experiencing a sense of belonging to a scientific community can benefit innovation, progress, and motivation in your field. 

As scientists, we are asked to push the limits of our current understanding and to lean into new discoveries. A strong sense of community could benefit scientific innovation by offering an environment conducive to asking new questions, making mistakes, and trying again. A scientist with a secure community attachment might experience comfort in curious exploration of new ideas.2 Similarly, a strong community promotes scientific progress by welcoming constructive criticism. It is often easier to receive constructive feedback in a supportive environment,5 leading to more open discussion. An environment rich in support creates learning opportunities for all members, regardless of their tenure in the community. Finally, a sense of community could improve a scientist’s motivation to pursue a research question by positively influencing their mental health.6 

Community as a Graduate Student

In addition to the benefits above, feeling a sense of community during graduate school can motivate progress in the program,4 support conflict resolution,7 and help build soft skills that may not be the focus of your research training. Students can find peer-to-peer community in courses, research labs, and extra-curricular activities (like volunteering with the IMS Magazine!) However, despite these benefits and institutional efforts to foster community, being a graduate student can still feel isolating. 

Finding a sense of community at OHBM was a welcome surprise for me. As I begin my last year of graduate school, I feel a renewed excitement about my research and contribution to my sub-specialty of neuroimaging. To those wondering where to find a sense of community, my advice is to remain open-minded, seek out new opportunities for connection, and be patient with yourself. Like working towards a secure relational attachment,3 feeling comfortable and confident in your field may require additional reflection and seeking out the right community fit for you.

I appreciate the efforts OHBM has made to create an inclusive and supportive space for their community members.8 At OHBM, feeling a sense of community meant I felt comfortable candidly engaging in discussions with senior scientists. The conference had an overall interest in collaboration and a willingness to learn from others’ experiences. It is possible that I am at a more confident stage in my PhD, and this may have allowed me to overcome barriers I had previously felt at other conferences. However, I think it’s worth emphasizing, for graduate students and senior scientists alike, the impact that an environment can have when it is genuinely conducive to collaboration and innovation. Indeed, our scientific communities will flourish better by cultivating a true sense of community.