Beyond the niche: how AuthorAID expands academic horizons


Richard de Grijs describes how AuthorAID, an INASP initiative that tackles the under-representation of researchers in developing countries, enriched his academic career following a move to China.

Five years ago, I made the life-changing decision to resign from my comfortable academic position at the University of Sheffield and move to the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University. Then, as now, my research focused on star clusters, which are among the basic building-blocks of galaxies, and, aside from representing unique stellar environments, allow us to trace the formation, assembly, and evolutionary history of their parent galaxies.

Leaving my position in England in order to begin a life at what was a newly established research institute in China was a tremendous leap for me, but I believed the skills I had acquired could greatly benefit this evolving scientific community. The move offered me the chance to make a difference in the lives of hard-working, extremely bright Chinese students – and I was going to take it.

Five years ago was also the time I discovered AuthorAID, an initiative run by international development charity INASP. Before leaving England, I had already established strong collaborative relationships with Chinese scientists, and regularly assisted them with their academic writing. In addition to my academic role, I worked as a freelance technical editor, and I used these skills to help my collaborators polish their language and ensure the resulting text was as well-written as possible, which in turn helped me become a better writer. I embraced the AuthorAID initiative because it seeks to do on a global scale what I had been achieving on a more modest one.

The initiative fills a gap in what is being offered to scientists from developing regions who might not be native English speakers, and in addition to creating a like-minded community of researchers that can act as a virtual resource for all involved, AuthorAID helps researchers from developing countries to get published in international peer-reviewed journals. Furthermore, the programme facilitates the mentoring of junior scientists by senior researchers, whom they might not ordinarily encounter, but whose inputs would be incredibly valuable.

Through AuthorAID I have mentored junior scientists from China, Mongolia, Nepal, and Bangladesh in fields from astrophysics to hydrodynamics. At first I joined the initiative because I simply wanted to help, but mentoring has actually given me the confidence to develop further. As a member of the lecturing team of journal editors, I began running workshops for authors and reviewers, first at the International Astronomical Union’s 2012 General Assembly in Beijing. Through the AuthorAID network I gained the insights and confidence to pursue this line of professional development and as a result I have become a popular workshop coach.

Participant feedback has been very encouraging and tends to centre around the fact that I provide an international perspective based on my own background. My course content is driven by my own professional experiences, from which I have gained insights in effective mentoring and in providing effective workshop guidance. I enjoy people-to-people interactions, and these workshops have not only been delightful, but have given me more confidence in my own presentation skills and effectiveness.

As an experienced university lecturer, I have long known that developing teaching materials is one of the best approaches to gain a detailed understanding of a subject. Five years of AuthorAID mentoring and workshop development have made me a much better teacher of topics that are often considered tangential to the academic endeavour but which are, in fact, really central to our profession: science communication and dissemination.

AuthorAID has also introduced me to fields well outside my area of expertise and allowed me to engage with a wonderful, supportive community of ambitious scientists and scholars around the world. My background and involvement as an AuthorAID mentor have additionally allowed me to act as adviser to a newly established medical journal (the International Journal of MCH and AIDS), work with bright young scientists in fields as diverse as atmospheric physics and oceanography, and even host early career scientists from neighbouring countries for short periods of time. In turn, these visits enabled my junior colleagues to gain research experience at an internationally respected level, allowing them to take their new insights back to their home institutes, thus benefiting their local colleagues in turn.

Recognising that some of my junior colleagues in China view me as a role model places a significant responsibility on my shoulders. Indeed, I see it as the central tenet of my career to support students and junior colleagues, allowing them to succeed in their own right. There are few experiences more satisfying than seeing a student’s eyes light up because they suddenly ‘get it’; this moment of understanding is one of the most precious gifts a teacher can receive. And indeed, at Peking University I have the great fortune of being able to work with China’s best and brightest students.

Working within the Chinese research environment has required me to cultivate a spirit of resourcefulness – in no small part because when I first arrived I didn’t speak the language, and I still don’t to the extent I would want to. In my current role, my research has continued to revolve around star clusters, but during my time in China I have developed an interest in firming up the astronomical distance scale, i.e. determining accurate distances to astrophysical objects. This is no mean feat, but knowing the distance of an object is key to understanding it: without an accurate distance, we do not know how bright it is, how large it is, or even (for great distances) when it existed.

With the assistance of my great team of students and junior colleagues, we have been able to carve out our own niche in astrophysics research, thus allowing us to establish an internationally respected research group in the field of star cluster astrophysics. This has allowed us to grow into a highly productive and coherent team of internationally competitive scientists. We even had some unexpected yet potentially ground-breaking results on the nature of large star clusters in nearby galaxies, obtained by my student, Chengyuan Li, published in Nature in December 2014.

There has indeed been little reason to lament the loss of some of the pleasures associated with my previous appointment in England, as my current role and my work as an AuthorAID mentor have certainly expanded my horizons far more than I had ever anticipated. Not only is the AuthorAID network a great community that brings people together in contexts they may never have expected, it ensures that everyone can be kept up-to-date with publishing issues that might affect southern regions. Public and professional engagement on an international scale should be part of every researcher’s life and initiatives like AuthorAID aim to make sure that it can be.

Image: The Pleiades, perhaps the best-known example of a star cluster, the astronomical phenomenon that is the main focus of the author’s research