Fancy yourself an OpenThinker? This past participant reflects on how the program helped her grow as an academic

- December 1, 2023

Sophie Watts joined OpenThink in 2021 and was able to find a wider audience for her research. (Danny Abriel photos)
Sophie Watts joined OpenThink in 2021 and was able to find a wider audience for her research. (Danny Abriel photos)

You will normally find Sophie Watts in the lab or in the orchard, working on the newest variety of apple. But her research is reaching a world beyond genomics, in part from her time as a Dalhousie OpenThinker.

“OpenThinkers aim to tackle big problems in accessible ways,” states Lynne Robinson, program coordinator with OpenThink — an initiative that empowers a select group of PhD researchers with the skills and platform to share their ideas with the world.

Existing at the intersection of public scholarship and knowledge mobilization, OpenThinkers provide analysis, perspectives and conversations on topics related to their ongoing PhD work.  The Faculty of Graduate Studies is now accepting nominations for its next cohort of OpenThinkers (deadline for submissions is Monday, December 18, 2023 at 5:00 p.m. AST).

Sophie Watts, an OpenThinker from the 2021 cohort, harnessed her training to discuss bold ideas in the realm of genomics.

Dal News caught up with Sophie from her office in Zurich, where she is now a post-doctoral fellow at ETH Zurich. She shared reflections on her time as an OpenThinker and how it helped equip her with the tools to share her research with a wider audience.

How has OpenThink supported the growth of your career?

It helped me develop the ability to distill what my PhD research was on and work on communicating that. Going through the OpenThink exercises, they had all sorts of different sessions where you really try to craft that elevator pitch.

What part of the training sessions you felt helpful in both your career and research?

The commitment in the program to write the 10 articles. I found that commitment and the support we got from the OpenThink program on how to come up with ideas of what was the relevant messages from our research, how to share and format them, while learning how to write clearly for a public audience was all good. Than to have this commitment to have to do that every month, even though sometimes it felt very challenging to do so.

What would be some advice that you'd give to future OpenThinkers in terms of getting their research to a broader audience?

Something I'd really push for other OpenThinkers to do is reading through other platforms that you can submit your OpenThink pieces to. The OpenThink program has been supportive of thinking outside the box, for reaching different groups of people and different audiences.

OpenThink really encourages OpenThinkers to submit a piece in a publication outside of the program. The article I wrote that ended up going into The Conversation was taking advantage of that opportunity. Places like The Conversation really helped sort of catapult that article I wrote.

So have you encountered any kind of specific challenges or obstacles in terms of your research journey? Did open think either like the special sessions and training that they you had or just the program itself to those kind of help you overcome some of those?

The practice through this program of writing and being encouraged to write, and the commitment to write was a challenge sometimes, particularly to find time to do that.

I think now sitting down, if I'm hoping to write something in the future, I feel a little more confident you know you can put things together and get a message across. The program helped both for me to understand how to better formulate and put together key messages from my research to share. The reinforced practice of doing that over the course of the year was also really helpful and just overcoming things like writers block.

The sort of camaraderie that's formed between the cohort is also  positive and would be something that I hope people consider in the OpenThink program. It is a really big value that you get to connect with other PhD students across the university. Through the program you learn more about completely different research that's happening on different issues, in different fields, and then also just developing another group of peers, which was helpful.

Can you share an example where public engagement played a significant role in disseminating your research?

The Conversation article mentioned before is an example of where I put research on Cannabis out there and my piece was published around the time when the journal article was released.

I still get notifications from The Conversation saying this article is continuing to be read and it sort of just spiraled. At one point, my supervisor had found this YouTube video of people discussing the results in this research, people who were not directly involved in it or the smaller genomics research community.

There seemed to be a lot of spin off ways which people were engaging with that research, whether it is directly through The Conversation piece or other articles that started to be written about the paper that had come out.

Being a part of OpenThink at the time when that paper was published, I think was really just like an awesome compliment to it. The impact of that paper and how it was shared, I was thankful that it all sort of lined up well during that time, for those two things to happen together.

Apply to become a 2024 OpenThinker

Dalhousie’s OpenThink Initiative gives PhD students the skills and platform to share their ideas with the world. Join the next cohort. Download the application form [PDF - 153 KB].

Application submission deadline: Monday, December 18, 2023 at 5:00 p.m. AST


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