The science of schmoozing

It’s true, I soon learn: In the burgeoning world of Arctic research, nearly everyone does know Lantuit, a professor at the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) for Polar and Marine Research in Potsdam, Germany. At age 37—young in scientist years—he’s leveraged his deep network of contacts to build an impressive career. In 2006, he co-founded the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS), which now has more than 5000 members. Five years later, he became co-principal investigator (PI) on a 4-year, €9 million project to study permafrost in the Arctic. And while his dense CV features solid papers on that topic, the positions it lists on major international research committees, and the growing research group he heads at AWI, are at least as impressive. The research program he manages, on Herschel Island in the Canadian Beaufort Sea, is at an important monitoring site for erosion of Arctic permafrost coasts, which comprise a third of Earth’s shores. “He’s the man,” says colleague Paul Overduin, a geoscientist  at AWI. “He puts us on the map in a lot of ways.”

Your enthusiasm brings you credit because you get involved, not just because you are friendly.

It was via a map that I first encountered the smiley geoscientist. I was attending a summer school on Arctic science last summer, and Lantuit’s talk on “Arctic organizations” promised boredom. But the first slide (“Arctic acronyms: Everything you don’t want to know about Arctic science”) suggested wit and wisdom instead. The heart of the talk was a schematic showing the numerous, mind-numbing acronyms that organize polar science:

He expertly explained how the parts of the acronym soup all relate: which bodies fund what, support which students, operate where, and publish which reports. Sure, he peppered his talk with silly analogies (comparing international organizations to the Death Star, for example) and told jokes (“They like to have a young, good-looking guy around for parties”), but it was clear that Lantuit had mastered the system—he helps maintain much of it, I learned later—and could navigate it with wit and panache.

So I met him in Ottawa, where the cocktail hour was winding down, to learn secrets of networking that any scientist could use. As early as graduate school, he told me, he was “genuinely interested in bringing people together.” As a master’s student at McGill University in 2002, he founded the Geography Graduate Society. “There was always this need to organize, lead, manage, create, and make things grow,” he says. For his research project, he mapped Arctic coastal permafrost, whose carbon is a crucial element in global climate models. When his graduate adviser mentioned an upcoming international meeting in Oslo to gather research on Arctic coasts, he bought his own ticket. That showed his adviser that he was a particularly eager student, Lantuit says. Just as important, it introduced him to the community of senior Arctic scientists. Being the one at the meeting with results, despite his junior status, allowed Lantuit to soon become a coordinator on the multinational project. When the key paper came out a decade later, he was the first author.

That experience taught him lessons about networking in science that have subsequently shaped his career. First, he says, what matters isn’t how impressive the name on a business card is—it’s the role you play in projects or initiatives. “It’s not always about power. It’s about getting to the people who can make it happen,” he says. Second, while wearing a welcoming face never hurts, it’s what you offer scientifically that will help you turn introductory conversations into scientific opportunities. “Your enthusiasm brings you credit because you get involved, not just because you are friendly,” he says.

Lantuit became connected early on, but he found few resources to help other young Arctic scientists do the same. “At Arctic conferences, they would put us into a corner, with a few senior scientists on a panel speaking to us—how does that help a scientist starting out to connect?” he asks. He started having Skype conversations with Jenny Baeseman, who at the time was studying microbial biology in Antarctica, and the two graduate students realized “there was a niche,” says Baeseman, who now directs a climate research program at the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromso, Norway. So the pair founded APECS. The organization now runs workshops that bring together young and established scientists to explore publishing, fieldwork, funding, and career advancement. “We now have young scientists on all the major committees in polar science,” Baeseman says.

Building that network was just one step in establishing Lantuit’s reputation as a connector. He took other steps by helping scientists find specific opportunities. Baeseman, for example, was focused on Antarctica when Lantuit linked her with scientists doing related research in the Arctic. “Through that, I ended up being a co-PI on an NSF [National Science Foundation]-funded study of thermokarst lakes in the Arctic,” Baeseman says. “He’s just someone who’s constantly connecting his peers.”

His peers connect him in return: Lantuit’s CV lists the myriad partnerships, international research projects, journal special issues, and panels and conferences he’s created or run. Managing it all is a chore: On his phone’s scheduling app, he shows me the relentless string of meetings, dinners, sessions, and cocktail hours he’s arranged for the 5-day conference.

None of this would be possible if he didn’t publish important research. “I tell my [Ph.D.] students, you need to deliver scientifically,” he says. He reinforced that message recently with them, several of whom wanted to attend the Ottawa meeting. “I told them they couldn’t come,” Lantuit says. “Their dissertations are late.”

Indeed, there’s little question his work running projects has limited his scientific output somewhat. He wouldn’t have obtained his faculty post at AWI without well-regarded papers on erosion on Arctic coasts—but he would have more published work, he says, if he had devoted less time to the various projects he oversees. “There are scientists who will publish 50 papers in Nature in their career. I won’t. I’m fine with that,” he says.

He’s also fine with letting some connections fall by the wayside. Wharton business school professor Adam Grant separates the business world into three groups. “Givers,” he says, tend to contribute more to their colleagues than they take. “Takers” tend to take more than they give. “Matchers” seek to take roughly the amount they’re given. The same applies in research, says Lantuit, who is a textbook case of a giver. Science has its takers, he says—people who don’t share opportunities with colleagues but do demand data, funding, or prominent position on author lists. “I am very happy to discard takers from projects [even if] they might be the best scientists in the world,” Lantuit says.

Lantuit’s career offers lessons for scientists, be they shy or outgoing. But what made him the inveterate connector he is? Is it something in his nature? “I can define myself as a Machiavellian giver,” he tells me, arguing that the efforts he makes to help others have benefited him time and again. But I’m puzzled. Isn’t he in his element during scientific cocktail hours? Doesn’t he enjoy it? “I have this inner drive to connect,” he admits, as he gets up to walk to the conference gala dinner. He’s put together a colorful table of heavy hitters: influential scientists, well-known administrators, and funders. These are useful people to know, but it’s clear he genuinely likes each one. “It’s fun,” he says, and heads for the ballroom.

How to earn a reputation as a valuable connector, even if you’re an introvert 

  1. Thank those who help you. (For some of these tips, in fact, I should acknowledge and thank Eric Barker, writer and creator of the Barking Up The Wrong Tree blog, and Adam Grant.)

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