Over the last 4 years, I have made the Chemical Institute of Canada – Toronto Section a major part of my volunteer work. As I approach the end of my graduate degree, I wanted to share with the CIC membership how volunteering with the CIC has helped shape who I am today and changed the trajectory of my career.
In the lead-up to the 2015 Federal Election, I became interested in the relationship between science, society, and politics. With the support of the local section, I approached local candidates to interview them about their stances on science policies (including issues like research funding, and science integrity) and issues that matter to everyone (like their personal opinions on vaccines). The project (which we called CICTor Votes) was able to engage candidates from at least 2 major parties in our chosen riding on issues of science and received positive feedback from the membership.
I was encouraged by how supportive and inclusive my local section was and decided to stay and volunteer. By the end of my first year I had taken part in putting on a Student Awards Night, mounting a kids’ science fair, and writing a successful grant application. I was happy to soak in all of the knowledge and experience from executive members who had been on the committee for years. They taught me the ins-and-outs of budgeting, managing, organization finances, event planning, grant writing, and organizational communication.
Over the next few years I took on leadership roles in the local section and was able to champion a few key issues: 1) diversifying chemical education beyond academia and industry research; 2) supporting equity, diversity, and inclusivity initiatives; and 3) encouraging other scientists to be politically engaged. Being chair or vice-chair of my local section meant that I was able to help set the agenda and ensure that these issues were considered in our events and new initiatives.
Before I joined, I had never seen myself as someone capable of leading. CIC has taught me how to delegate, how to speak to crowds, how to organize, and how to see a project from idea to completion. As graduate students, we’re always told to “network, network, network” and I can’t think of a better way I could have done it. Through organizing various events, I developed working relationships with invited speakers, with the team at CIC HQ, and with many faculty members around the GTA. I’ve leveraged some of that network into a creating a new science policy group at the University of Toronto that has further helped to develop my skills and interest in the field.
And on the flip side, I’m proud of the changes I’ve made to the culture of CIC Toronto. There’s now more consideration given to the diversity of our speakers, our career fair now regularly features career trajectories well outside of research labs, and CICTor Votes lives on through provincial and municipal (and the current federal) elections.
As I approach the end of my graduate degree, I’m gearing up to enter into the job market. I feel more confident (or at least less anxious) about my impending job search. I don’t know for certain that the work I’ve done with the CIC will directly translate into a career, but I know that I’m now armed with skills and experiences that will help me in my future workplace.
So why should you volunteer with your local section? My advice: Remember what you can gain from doing so. Sure, you can do it for altruistic reasons, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be gaining something — there’s so much in it for you as well. But I want to be clear here: I was in a position of privilege to do this volunteer work (i.e. for free). And not everyone is – I don’t have kids and I’m not a caregiver, and I’m paid a stipend as a graduate student. I am the first to admit that experience and exposure don’t pay the bills but I’m hoping this investment of my time will pay dividends down the road.
While I was lucky to be in a place to be able to volunteer for the Toronto local section, I acknowledge not everyone is in a position to do so. But if I’ve managed to convince you to spare some time to your CIC local section, here are a list of things that I’ve learned or that have worked for me (and I hope will for you):
- If you have an idea, pitch it. The worst thing that happens is that they say no. Best case scenario: you get to see a passion project come to life!
- Take credit when you deserve it. You put in the work – and you should be proud of your accomplishments. What might seem like “just volunteer-work” to you is actually project management and communication experience that you’ve gained that will make you stand out!
An event I’m particularly proud of is organizing a panel discussion at the 100th Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition in Toronto. We featured a diverse lineup of speakers ranging from Science Advocacy, to Science Illustration, and Patent Law. A major perk of organizing an event like this is that I was able to invite speakers with careers I was personally interested in (like science advocacy) and make that personal connection with the speakers. Almost all of the speakers were approached by other attendees after the event who wanted to know more about these different career paths.
- Say thank you. Send a quick email to invited guests and speakers after the event. We (graduate students) are told to network all of the time. But networking isn’t just meeting someone, it’s following up and maintaining relationships.
During my time as chair, we were able to host Prof. Polly Arnold, who was then at the University of Edinburgh, as a featured speaker for the E. Gordon Young lecture series. I had long been interested in her chemistry and looked to her as a champion and leader for equity and diversity in chemistry.
- Do what interests you! Sometimes you need something to motivate you when your experiments aren’t working. In the hardest points in my degree, it was great to have an exciting event to look forward to at the end of the week!