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Published: 2022-11-03

Voices from KBC 2022

NEWS The vision of KBC is to promote a positive, creative, and interdisciplinary environment for research combined with an excellent graduate education. Do the employees working at KBC appreciate the research environment, and do they have a “we-feeling”? This article is an overview of the voices of 15 KBC employees.

Text: Ingrid Söderbergh

It is spectacular that under “one roof” we have such state-of-the-art infrastructure!

Since the start in 2007, the Chemical Biological Centre, KBC, has grown into a complex centre including 1 200 employees from ten departments at Umeå University and SLU. The centre is unique in its collaborative structure and offers an excellent scientific infrastructure for research in life science, natural sciences and medicine. 

The “we-feeling” is growing stronger at KBC

Most of the respondents experience a “we-feeling” at KBC today and it has improved over the 15 years. KBC is a large community so there are in fact several levels of “we”; the research group, the research infrastructure, the department, and for some also a centre within the KBC. Obviously, it is easier to get a “we-feeling” as smaller as the community gets. One respondent says, “The we-feeling at KBC is not comparable to my own department, and I think it can never be, simply because it is too big.”

What brings almost all people together and create the “we-feeling” are the common social events and seminars, the KBC Day, and the open research infrastructures. KBC is experienced as a fantastic environment for collaborations with opportunities to work and exchange different expertise and know-how with people. “If the KBC environment would not exist, the centre where I work will automatically drop its capacity and potential quite a lot”, one respondent concludes.

Those respondents that express that they do not have a “we-feeling” have not participated in KBC activities or do not have the office in the KBC building and therefore experiences KBC as a little anonymous.  One respondent stresses that even though single units within KBC have strong individual identities, this do not become an obstacle to create collaborations within KBC itself. This person continues: “I have never heard anyone saying “I work at KBC” - people usually indicate the specific department of affiliation.”

Scientific cooperation across departmental borders

Interdisciplinary research topics can be well performed under the KBC umbrella without any institutional walls. Most of the responders collaborate or have been collaborating with a researcher from another department within KBC. Many of these collaborations were established already 10-15 year ago and some are still ongoing. One respondent states that sharing many facilities is the base of the scientific cooperation within KBC.

Interdepartmental seminars provide a view on what expertise are available around KBC. The Kempe postdocs that were part of the KBC programme connected many researchers between the departments. As good examples of opportunities of finding new collaborations, the responders mention IceLab pitches, interdepartmental seminars series, and the yearly KBC Days. Nevertheless, KBC employees are today not always aware about all colleagues’ research.

KBC research infrastructures are important

The responders appreciate the research infrastructures at KBC and most of them are well informed about which ones that are available and what service they can give. “It is spectacular that under “one roof” we have such state-of-the-art infrastructure!”, says one of the responders. The responders know that information about the infrastructures is given on KBC Days, and on regularly seminars, and they are well described on the website.

Those who do not have fully control might have no needs to utilize them. However, they know whom to ask to get information, or know where to look for information on the Umeå university website. So, it depends on the researcher him/herself how knowledgeable they are.

KBC attracts strong research leaders

A couple of responders do not have an opinion if KBC attracts strong research leaders, but according to most responders the KBC is definitely a strong selling point stressing the importance of collaborations and availability of cutting-edge research infrastructure. The good research going on is of course attractive to attract strong research leaders. One respondent summarizes the excellence: “KBC is incredibly important for attracting strong research leaders, providing access to infrastructure, critical mass, and seminars.”

However, one respondent disagrees: “I guess not, in my field, since KBC nowadays most concerns life science research.” A respondent from Umeå Plant Science Centre, UPSC, being a centre within KBC concludes “When we recruit, UPSC is the main brandmark that we sell, but KBC with its infrastructure and so on is a very good supplementary argument.”

Many opportunities for young researchers

According to the majority of answers, KBC is a good environment or even an excellent environment for young researchers. There are great opportunities to network - the open-door policy helps the PhD students a great deal. KBC is described as quite dynamic with a good research environment and various infrastructures available.

Some of the responders think that it is good idea to develop the PhD education with generic doctoral courses across departmental boundaries at KBC. Besides the learning process, it is also good for PhD students from various fields to meet each other. To give KBC specific PhD courses one need to consider that the backgrounds of the PhD students are very different, and an organisational problem is to get people to organize them.

Others points out that there are quite a good number of courses already, i.e. infrastructure courses, science communication, etc. Also, generic PhD courses are already given by the faculties (medfak, teknatfak). Therefore, a couple of respondents argue that there is no need to develop special courses for KBC.

From a postdoc’s perspective there are many opportunities at KBC and different groups offer interesting positions. There are several postdoc-initiatives now within KBC. The communication is easy and relaxed and there is access to many on site facilities: this speeds up experiments and timing is important for both postdocs and PhD students.

“There is also a postdoc community at Umeå University organizing events to which all postdocs from KBC are invited and this is also a nice way to meet new colleagues. I have not experienced anything like this in other places where I worked before.”, one respondent says.

The flow of information at KBC works

The respondents feel well informed about what is going on at KBC. They think that the flow of information within KBC is good – mentioning regular weekly emails about upcoming events and announcing on digital screens are the main sources. The KBC’s Communication Office is doing a good job.

One respondent points out that “It is important that the information is short and to the point. Less is more! I think people easily just dismiss emails if they contain too much information.” One respondent says that the information rarely has relevance to his/her work.

Social events improve the “we-feeling”

Many of the responders take part in social events organised by KBC and agree that social events are important for the “we-feeling”. They can even be especially important for the non-scientists at KBC who do not have so many other social events here to attend (since they are not attending the KBC Days for example).

Some respondents do not attend social events for various reasons. The young/new researchers have unfortunately not had the opportunity to attend any KBC social events, mainly due to the pandemic.

As highlights, the responders mention the Christmas party and the super fun KBC-stafetten. The KBC barbecue is a good idea, but it is really turned to families, so if you do not have children, it is not that interesting. Another respondent thinks “the KBC barbeque is the best event when “almost” everyone is there outside with families and have a good time.”

Umeå Postdoc society is a very good initiative according to one respondent: “It is important that they continue to receive support and encouragement to continue with activities such as retreats, game nights, etc.”

Stay open, dynamic and up-to-date in the future

KBC needs to stay up to date, open, dynamic, and in the research front line. To answer the toughest questions in the fields of life science and other natural sciences, researchers from different topics and different expertise need to join forces. KBC is an excellent platform for exactly this and its research infrastructures are of utmost importance in the future. KBC needs to keep up with good analysis capacity and to create opportunities for the researchers to meet will lead to important research utilizing the existing infrastructures and also create new needs which could turn into upgraded facilities, new facilities.

KBC can in the future open new challenging fields and recruit motivated young and energetic PIs nationally and worldwide in order to support them significantly. KBC can become better at promoting the excellent environment to the newcomers - PhD students, postdocs, and professors - in a structural way rather than letting them discover the facilities and departments on their own.

KBC can keep on bringing people from different departments together, especially from those departments that are relatively poor at attending KBC events today. 

KBC can become even better at communicating KBC as a brand. The goal is that Swedish and international life science researchers know of KBC and that many international researchers who have been here and moved on, will act as our ambassadors. To strengthen the brand, also a marketing-oriented approach is needed. Creating a logo could help in giving a specific identity to the KBC, as would a Twitter or Facebook account.

Ideas of improvements

There were many suggestions of improvements given by the respondents, and KBC will consider all of them.

Background to the interviews:

In 2007 Chemical Biological Centre, KBC, at Umeå University was established because of “Molekylärt samspel” – an evaluation of the future organization of chemistry in Umeå. The following year, 53 employees at KBC were interviewed about their views and visions of KBC. The material was compiled in the report "Röster från KBC".

In autumn 2022, follow-up questions were sent to the same employees that were interviewed in 2008 and who still had an email address at Umeå University. There were in total 25 people still working at KBC (three of these answered that they had retired but still kept their email). Ten employees sent in answers to the questions: seven professors, one associate professor, one visiting teacher, and one research engineer. In addition, responses were collected from two doctoral students and three postdoctoral researchers (who did not work at KBC in 2008) to obtain views of young researchers about KBC.

The respondents were given eight questions to answer in writing.