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Creating postdoc connections

The Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science pilots new ways to build leadership and teamwork skills for its postdocs.
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Clockwise from top left: Ziawasch Abedjan, Sara Cleto, Zhizhuo Zhang, and Shahin Kamali.
Clockwise from top left: Ziawasch Abedjan, Sara Cleto, Zhizhuo Zhang, and Shahin Kamali.
Photos: Patsy Sampson

“What I liked the most about the Postdoc6 Workshop was the playback theater!” says Zizhuo Zhang, postdoc in the Computational Biology Group with Manolis Kellis, professor of computer science.

Improv theater is just one of the tools the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) is using to help its postdocs beef up their leadership and teamwork skills as part of an initiative called Postdoc6. The program aims to knit together the often disperse postoc community, while helping postdocs and fellows train for their future careers.

With over 200 postdocs in its labs, EECS, under the direction of department head Anantha Chandrakasan, created Postdoc6 in late 2012. “Postdocs are a key part of EECS,” notes Chandrakasan, the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “We are committed to ensuring that they have access to the resources they need to succeed in their research and achieve their goals. With Postdoc6, we hope to build a vibrant postdoc community — opening the door to the many opportunities at MIT.” 

Increasing collaboration

In mid-January, Zhang and 15 other EECS postdocs participated in a two-day leadership workshop held at MIT’s Endicott House. The 16 EECS postdocs received training based on transactional analysis to build communication and self-management skills.  

Transactional analysis is a system of popular psychology based on the study of relationships as individuals shift among the roles of parent, child, and adult. This method can be mastered in two- to three-day sessions with the goal of building trust and openness. 

The workshop also featured training for follow-up peer groups to provide supportive networks that last long after the workshop ends.

“Since WWII, science has become increasingly collaborative,” says Nir Shavit, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and Postdoc6 faculty coordinator. “Now, authorship on major papers includes multiple authors and sometimes research groups. There is more and more need for collaborative and interdisciplinary work,” he adds. “The goal is to build a new generation of scientists that are more aware of human interactions, allowing for real communication in the labs.”

Learning to lead

Shahin Kamali, postdoc in computer science under Charles Leiserson, the Edwin Sibley Webster Professor of Computer Science, was upbeat following the experience. “Now I feel that MIT cares about me,” he says. With plans to join a peer group, Kamali says that the workshop also revealed his interest in helping people understand each other.  

Judith Birkenfeld, postdoc in the Madrid M+Vision Consortium at the Research Laboratory of Electronics and research fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, said she was impressed with the takeaway. “The Monday after the workshop, I could go to my office and apply what I learned right away,” she says. She was also impressed how the facilitators at the workshop were able to engage all participants: “They recognized your strengths and shortcomings quickly, and gave concrete advice on how to improve. Through subtle suggestions, I was amazed to see how people could appear completely different by applying minimal changes.”

“You are not alone in struggling through a project,” says Dan Congreve, who earned his PhD under Mark Baldo, professor of electrical engineering. Congreve will be completing his postdoc in the Research Laboratory of Electronics in several months to lead a research group as a fellow in the Rowland Institute at Harvard University. He joined the workshop knowing the issues of communication to lead a group were universal. “Finding a way to effectively say ‘This is why I am frustrated,’” he says, “was a major takeaway for any member of a team.”

“We didn't focus on playing a ‘boss’,” says Ziawasch Abedjan, postdoc with Michael Stonebraker, adjunct professor in computer science and 2014 Turing Award winner. “Instead,” Abedjan adds, “it was implied to inherently lead by acting as an adult who treats the other person as an adult. We wanted to avoid or break the inner-attitudes that resemble the roles of parent and child.”

Nir Shavit led an additional part of the workshop known as playback theater — using improv theater techniques to train groups of scientists to enhance collaborative and communication skills. “The playback process,” says Shavit, “is actually a microcosm of what’s happening in the lab.”

“Performing spontaneously is not a native skill for most serious researchers including postdocs,” notes Sara Cleto, postdoc in the Synthetic Biology Group with Tim Lu, associate professor of electrical engineering. “But, we could be as goofy as we wanted, since we felt no one would sit and judge us. We all participated.”  

Recognizing the challenge to express and manage emotion as a tool critical for focused research, Zhizhuo Zhang found the workshop including the improve theater was eye-opening. “In order to accomplish high impact research, it is necessary for a researcher to understand self motivation — to open your heart,” he says. “How to express yourself, to perform,” he adds, “was not only important in communicating your work, but it was the fun part of the workshop.”    

Building community

“Postdocs explore new areas as they launch their professional careers and create vital connections among groups within MIT and in other institutions,” says Muriel Médard, the Cecil H. Green Professor in EECS at MIT. As head of the Network Coding and Reliable Communication Group, Médard also notes that the contribution of postdocs in research groups in her field is growing in importance and complexity. “I see with pleasure that postdocs are increasingly collaborating with each other, creating a vibrant community of the next generation of researchers.”

As the 16 Postdoc6 workshop participants resumed their daily research paths with new tools to apply to the challenges ahead, Postdoc6 steering committee members launched a new social activity for all EECS postdocs. Tea Time, a weekly tea and cookie social gathering will provide EECS postdocs an opportunity for community in a relaxed environment.

“The focus of Postdoc6 planning is all about forming community and making postdocs’ time at MIT better through workshops and community meetings such as Tea Time,” Shavit says. He adds that no matter what the mechanism to build community, EECS is seeking ways that will accomplish the goal of building a positive experience for its postdocs.

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