Demystifying the work of research professionals
The research professionals* who work in scientific laboratories perform a variety of tasks that involve all of their activities, such as supporting principal investigators, supervising students, organizing daily workloads and managing budgets. The work of research professionals is thus essential to the creation and dissemination of scientific knowledge. Yet many people know little about these people and the work they do. To find out more, Anne-Sophie Poulin-Girard, a member of the NSERC’s Council and a former research professional herself, interviewed Mireille Quémener, a research professional at the CERVO Brain Research Centre at Université Laval.
What is the role of research professionals?
Research professionals have university degrees and help their research teams to carry out their day-to-day work. Research professionals are usually hired for the duration of specific research projects. Their tasks differ from one team to another but are generally quite varied: research professionals may train students, manage project finances, prepare samples, perform analyses, and disseminate results. Research professionals often participate in designing research programs, preparing grant applications and writing scientific articles. In fact, research professionals generally spend more time in the laboratory than principal investigators, who have other responsibilities, such as teaching. Research professionals also serve as their laboratories’ institutional memory by recording what their teams have learned and overseeing the transition from one group of graduate students to another so as to preserve the knowledge that they have acquired.
Why did you decide to become a research professional?
When I was an undergrad in physical engineering, I worked on several research internships, and I loved the experience. I decided to do a master’s in physics, so that I could do more research. That’s when I discovered the role of research professionals. As an undergrad, I was in close contact with the research professor, but as a grad student I saw the work done by these people who trained students and ensured that every phase of each research project went smoothly. I didn’t want to go on to doctoral studies and specialize further; I liked it that this role gives you a broader perspective and the chance to develop a wider range of skills. It’s a myth that all research professionals ultimately hope to become university professors. The job is completely different. At the CERVO Brain Research Centre, where I’m an engineer, I get the chance to work on many projects that involve engineering as well as neuroscience.
What is your proudest achievement?
I initiated some team projects, because when it comes to research, I firmly believe in teamwork, even though people in research settings often work alone, with everyone carrying out their own individual project. At the start of each summer, I offer the students and interns the chance to work as a team on a project that has a well defined objective and a more limited scope than a traditional master’s or doctoral project. Last year’s team project involved analyzing data from spectroscopic images of the human brain to identify the various types of tissue that it contains. The team did all of the work together, reviewing the literature, reading about the possible types of analyses, performing the tests and validating the results. This project was entirely voluntary, and it was a huge success. We even published a scientific article for which all of the team members were credited as co-authors. That was a great achievement from a scientific standpoint, but other achievements included the spirit of collaboration and mutual assistance that developed among the team members and the knowledge that they acquired that they can also apply in their individual master’s or doctoral projects. That’s sort of the lab’s trademark now. This project clearly shows how much freedom and opportunity to innovate my job gives me.
What can be done to raise awareness of the work of research professionals?
Despite the major contributions that research professionals make to the entire research and innovation process, they continue to toil in obscurity. I think that undergraduates don’t get to see enough research professionals as role models. Apart from my duties as a research professional, I got to teach basic electronics in a course as part of a bachelor’s program in teaching science at the secondary-school level. I was also a lecturer for an undergraduate laboratory course in physics and physical engineering. You don’t hear a lot about these kinds of opportunities, but they are very attractive for people who have a strong interest in teaching, as I do. There’s another advantage to having research professionals teach at the university level: because they participate so closely in laboratory activities and are so familiar with the technical challenges involved, they provide expertise that complements the teaching faculty’s and bring a wider range of skills to the training of students. Also, because there are more woman research professionals than woman professors, it’s a way to provide more woman role models in science education.
In Canada, many people from many different backgrounds are doing the work of research professionals even though they don’t have this exact job title. Research professionals are everywhere in the research ecosystem, without anyone’s realizing it. More research professionals could also be included on committees to obtain their perspective and to better publicize their contributions to the research findings published in articles and presented at conferences. Doing research work takes an entire team, and the research professionals are the team members who hold it all together.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity, and then translated.
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