SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
18 May 2017
Volume 18 Issue 5

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The Fight of a Generation

Alistair Brown, Chair of the SETAC North America Career Development Committee

Elizabeth Kolbert, in The New Yorker’s 27 Feb 2017 issue, wrote an article titled “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.” In it she writes, “Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate. Cooperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups. Reason is an adaptation to the hyper-social niche humans have evolved for themselves. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an ‘intellectualist’ point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social ‘interactionist’ perspective.”

Constance (Stans) EikelenboomScientists have the difficult task of meshing multiple human issues together; we are compelled to work in collaborative groups where strong personalities can clash and attempt to dominate professional environments. Corporate posturing typically accepts the notion that relationships are secondary when individuals are in pursuit of moving up the food chain; stepping on others becomes the norm. However, workplaces that cultivate leadership teams and cast a vision of inclusion have a greater chance for longevity, especially during the hard times. When dealing with academic or professional laboratory environments, instilling values and training new members properly is essential in perpetuating the success of that laboratory. This requires good leaders at all levels, not just the principal investigator (P.I.) writing the grant proposals. Interactions between current and new staff, and interactions between P.I.’s, lab managers, post-docs, grad students, summer undergrads, interns, departmental chairs, etc., will require the ability to work with people across multiple generations.

Sciences such as chemistry, biology, mathematics and toxicology seem to move at slower rates than the current hyper-social world because sober thought, transparency, reproducibility and our algorithms involved in “doing” science takes a while. Publishing and then disseminating the results takes even more time, so things move at a distilled pace. Moreover, the impact of scientific findings reaches into the realm of government policy making. As a result, technical drivers for risk assessment frequently take a back seat to political and socioeconomic ones, motivators that can take quite some time to develop. Along similar parallels to the technology industry, science is very multi-faceted and collaborative. This requires a strong independent drive, yet cooperation between various laboratories, disciplines and cultures. Good leaders are vital when bridging these divides. Regardless of the particular industry or field we work in, intangible skills like conflict resolution, newcomer training, recruitment and team building require a paradigm of thought that reflects a culture of safety and inclusion. Moreover, one of the key benefits in recruiting, building and growing leaders in your workplace is that good leaders in the middle (or bottom) make better leaders at the top. In order for your organization to reach its full potential, skills need to be developed that encourage understanding, prioritization and differences in perspective. That will invariably create the powerful dichotomy of possessing drive and vision in conjunction with experience and measured purpose.

To encourage the multiple generations present in the workplace, the Leadership Subcommittee of the SETAC North America Career Development Committee and the SETAC North America Student Advisory Council (NASAC) are jointly offering a professional training course that seeks to foster the education and awareness of the four generations that are found in the workplace today: Silents (born between 1925 and 1946), baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), Generation Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) and Generation Ys or millennials (born after 1980). The short course will evaluate the events that shaped each generation and the communication and leadership styles of each. Emphasis will be place on the strategies, techniques and tools one can use to increase effectiveness at work, reduce misunderstanding and generational conflict, and cultivate inclusive workplace cultures. The SETAC North America Leadership Subcommittee and NASAC encourage any and all SETAC members to attend and participate in this course as feedback from all generations will be welcome and helpful. 

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