Eastern Hub Retreat Persists Amid Social Distancing

NSPN’s Eastern Hub recently held a virtual retreat. Co-Directors Amanda Acosta-Ruiz and Bernat Navarro-Serer share their insights on the execution and outcomes of the event.


On May 30th, the NSPN Eastern Hub virtually got together and enjoyed a day of assorted science policy sessions. Initially thought of as a two-day in-person retreat, the event was adjusted to a one-day online event amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. It was rebranded as RETREAT @ HOME. The goal of the retreat remained similar – come together as chapters of the Eastern Hub, learn from our peers’ efforts at their home institutions, discuss science policy activities happening in our region, and learn about careers in science policy. We hope to still have an in-person retreat in the future, incorporating more hands-on workshops to develop our skillsets. Keep an eye out for this in (hopefully) 2021! 


Morning: Eastern Hub Session


RETREAT @ HOME began with a morning session open exclusively to members of the Eastern Hub. Our first session was the NSPN Welcome, in which the NSPN Director of Memberships Holly Mayton, PhD and the NSPN Advisory Board Chair Robbie Barbero, PhD kicked off the day. Holly shared the current state of NSPN and where we hope NSPN will move towards in the upcoming years. Robbie discussed his career trajectory and what he hopes for the new generation of early career scientists interested in science policy. 


Following the warm NSPN welcome, we moved to one of the most exciting parts of the retreat: the Eastern Hub Sharing Session. With this session, we aimed to discuss our chapter’s efforts and challenges to encourage and advise each other, leveraging our collective experiences. Leadership from each participating chapter prepared two slides on initiatives and challenges from their respective science policy groups at their home institution. The Sharing Session was a great achievement, featuring the contribution of many chapters in providing helpful and lively discussion. We discussed how various events worked, what made them successful, and how they helped recruit new members. Our chapters have worked on amazing initiatives, such as advocating their administration for a science policy certificate program and beginning discussions with their state government to establish a science policy fellowship!


We also discovered how our groups face similar challenges: participation levels and membership consistency, leadership transition, transition to online events, budgetary difficulties and quirks, especially now online due to COVID-19. We came up with some strategies to address these issues:


  • Engage with new members early (i.e., orientation) and provide ways to get involved

  • Incorporate stepping stones to leadership (i.e., leading a working group as a step towards larger group leadership) 

  • Check in with leadership to know ahead of time when they need to step away from their roles and actively work to train their replacements

  • Increase online presence with better websites, online software and tools to hold workshops and events (this is a good way to spend budget during COVID!)

  • Market events earlier and connect with faculty to help event participation. Connections with faculty can also legitimize your efforts (i.e., certificate programs) and serve as a resource for future recommendations 


The Sharing Session helped us come together and strengthen our bond as chapters of the Eastern Hub. Our members really felt this session was a huge success. In our post-event survey, members noted: “I thought the Success Sharing Session was incredibly helpful, and I left with a bunch of ideas to hopefully stimulate participation and activity at my chapter,” as well as, “It was great! Honestly I wish it had been much longer.” We look forward to facilitating similar events in the future to continue the collective learning experiences.


Afternoon: Open Session


For the second half of the retreat, we welcomed all NSPN members, encouraging those from other regions to participate and learn from the speakers and panelists we had gathered. We had two incredible speakers from the Georgetown Law O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. First, we heard from Sean Bland, JD, Senior Associate at the O’Neill Institute, who works on HIV/AIDS law and policy initiatives. We then heard from Regina LaBelle, JD, Program Director of the Addiction and Public Policy Initiative at the O’Neill Institute, who manages projects on the opioid epidemic, addiction policies, and barriers to treatment for substance use disorders. It was greatly informative having these two voices on public health discuss how biomedical and clinical research can contribute to the policies that support affected populations. Sean and Regina opened the floor to a Q&A session at the end of their respective talks and were also able to join us for a networking happy hour at the end of the day. It was fantastic having these engaging speakers to learn from! 


The last part of the retreat focused on professional development. This included a career panel and networking session for the participants to learn about the diverse career paths available in the science policy field, as well as how our career panelists transitioned to their roles. The career panel included five panelists (Mahlet Mesfin, PhD, Jenn Gustetic, Eric L. Stevens, PhD, Cheryl Smith, PhD, and Adriana Bankston, PhD) representing a variety of agencies including NIH, NASA, and FDA, among others. Some of our panelists had worked in multiple government agencies and were able to provide perspectives on how these differed. We also discussed transitioning to science policy work with and without the need of a fellowship, showcasing the diversity of ways scientists can begin to engage in policy. Attendees appreciated the effort organizers put into the career panel, noting that “the variation in the panelists’ career paths was very nice and helpful.”


This panel was followed by a virtual happy hour and networking session using breakout rooms. This was a great opportunity for everyone to learn more about what the panelists do, get advice when thinking about future careers, and engage in a closer and more personal discussion about science policy topics! 


Looking Forward


Overall, the RETREAT @ HOME was a huge success! Adapting the retreat to a virtual event was challenging, and we still hope to have an in-person event to keep strengthening our bonds as Eastern Hub chapters, but members and attendees still gained a lot from the online format of the event. This was a great opportunity for our members to engage in science policy discussions and to learn about initiatives and ideas to bring back to their institutions. As the COVID-19 pandemic might disrupt in person events for the months to come, we’re providing some advice for other NSPN regions that are interested in planning a virtual retreat!


  • A well-designed Sharing Session provided invaluable avenues for community building, resource and advice discussions, and collective brainstorming and idea sharing. We highly recommend all regions find a mechanism that works for them in their respective retreats and upcoming initiatives. We look forward to an increased bond between our chapters moving forward. 

  • Breakout rooms are a great way to facilitate small group discussions, such as we did with our speakers and panelists. Random assortment with manual editing allowed us to have one panelist or speaker per room to allow for that form of engagement, going beyond the (also valuable) peer-to-peer engagement. Some of the feedback we received from the participants pointed out the need to have added more direction to the breakout room rounds – suggesting short introductions and a topic mentioned throughout the day or a general science policy topic as a theme for each round to facilitate discussions. 

  • Finally, our career panels provided a great deal of valuable advice. However, five panelists for an hour-long session was jam packed. In the future, we would either extend the time for the career panel or limit the panel to 3-4 panelists. This will allow for greater discussion between panelists. 


We would like to thank everyone who participated in the retreat and made it such an enjoyable and wonderful event! Special thanks to the Eastern Hub Planning Team for taking on the work that helped make this event a huge success! We couldn’t have done it without your help. 


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