The Science Leadership Program: Turning Leaders into Even More Effective Leaders

Article by: J. Dean Spence

In the McGuigan Lab – where the main research themes are biomaterials, tissue engineering, and regenerative medicine – Alison McGuigan, Associate Professor in Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry at U of T, spends a lot of time studying cell behaviour.

Cells, McGuigan says, are like people in that they “care” about the environment they are in, “and depending on that, they will behave differently. So in the same way that you might behave differently at work versus in a night club – where you’re going to be surrounded by different people – a cell is going to behave differently if it’s next to a cell like itself versus if it’s next to a blood vessel cell or whatever.”

Creating such analogies is quite difficult, McGuigan says, but the results can be powerful. “Creating analogies involves drawing out the concept in the most minimal way to identify the key elements and the relationships between them. And then [discerning] whether there is a way of looking for something in your everyday life that has the same structure of relationships so you can then get to the analogy in a more strategic way, rather than just sitting and trying to think of one.”

McGuigan is able to discuss such complicated scientific concepts as cell behaviour in plain English thanks in part to the skills she has learned teaching a chemical engineering communication course at U of T, as well as attending U of T’s Science Leadership Program (SLP) in 2013.

“The Science Leadership Program was started in 2012 by my predecessor, Prof Ray Jayawardhana”, says Molly Shoichet, PhD via email, “and continued by me in 2015 and now again in 2016. Supported by the Connaught Foundation and Science & Engineering Engagement at U of T, SLP is designed to give professors the tools they need to succeed in effective communication and leadership. It is 2+ days of intensive workshops. Professors come away with greater self-confidence and techniques to help them succeed”.

According to McGuigan, some of the skills and topics covered in the SLP include the use of analogies, change management, press management, network mapping, and vocal techniques. Shoichet adds, “They learn some of the tricks of the trade that actors use – how to engage an audience with your voice and body to deliver an effective message. They learn how to lead in an academic setting – how to manage in what many consider an ill-defined structure – to better understand what motivates others and then work with this knowledge to provide more effective leadership”.

Because McGuigan does teach communication skills to undergraduate students, she was already familiar with some of the topics covered by the SLP. “A lot of the tools that we covered in the SLP are ones that I was already teaching, but it’s always nice to see when someone teaches it with different material. I find that at some of these events maybe you don’t learn completely new tools, but you use them again in new ways. There’s usually insight that comes from taking some time to think about how I would explain my research as an analogy. The SLP also gave me ideas about activities to put into my communication classes”.

Although McGuigan was already familiar with a lot of the subjects, she still found the program interesting and did come across some new material. “There was a lot of discussion relating to how one reaches out to the press and book publishers that I didn’t know. If you want press you have to have a specific strategy about the kind of press release you use, and the way you explain things. I thought press people find you. I didn’t realize that you had to sell your story”.

The SLP alumni are given a survey after completing the program to see if learning objectives have been met. “We gained a perspective on the impact of the SLP through a survey”, Shoichet said. “We had excellent participation and gained insight into how participation in the SLP helped our professors succeed”. One survey question asked, What skills are you using that you learned in the SLP? The top five answers were:

  1. Attention to posture, gesture, and projection in presentation;
  2. Development of story from the science to the public;
  3. Control of voice;
  4. Critical thinking;
  5. Change strategies.

“The first four are really about optimizing presentation techniques”, said McGuigan. “I teach presentation techniques, so I knew a lot of that stuff and had seen a lot of those exercises. I think in my answer to that question I said that the skills I am using the most are the press interaction ones because I hadn’t seen that material before.

Another survey question asked, How are you using the skills you learned in the SLP? The top five answers were:

  1. Communication with an external audience;
  2. Communicating with research lab members and lab teams;
  3. Taking on leadership roles;
  4. Connection with colleagues outside of your field;
  5. Encouragement and empowerment for change.

McGuigan suggested that one skill she learned as a result of the mind-mapping exercises was being prepared. She now makes sure that she always has coloured pens and Post It notes in her office to remind her to use tools like mind-mapping. “I used mind-mapping sometimes before the SLP, but when I used it that day [during the SLP] something I realized was that the barrier has to be low so that you remember to use the tools. I started having paper and pens in my office so that when I’m writing a grant or something I actually remember to use the tool”.

McGuigan is happy she took the SLP. She found it a valuable opportunity to practice skills and network with peers. “I thinks it’s a very valuable program and it’s useful sometimes to take time out of your schedule and practice using the tools they are going to give you. Also, I found that the interaction of the community during and after the program has opened opportunities to get one’s research out there that you wouldn’t normally have”.

For people considering taking the SLP in the future, McGuigan has the following thoughts: “I think it’s very valuable to take a couple of days to think about what you’re doing in a different way. The skills that you get – maybe you’ve seen them before, maybe you’ve done a lot of press interaction – but practicing them still has value”.

She adds, “I think it’s just a good opportunity. You should take advantage of these kinds of opportunities because you don’t know where it’s going to lead you”.