Last week, I spent several days giving a few talks for a virtual visit to UC Berkeley. The last day, I was invited to sit in on a journal club run by 2nd and 3rd year students in the “Genetic Dissection of Cells and Organisms” training program. They asked for a paper ahead of time so I sent our most recent preprint that we are about to revise and submit for journal publication. It’s difficult for me to fully describe the pure delight of this experience, but I’ll try.
At the start of the hour, we went around the virtual room. Each student called on the next so they could introduce themselves, what lab and department they were in, and what they study. Then a fantastic student, Sunnyjoy Dupuis, from my colleague Sabeeha Merchant’s lab began her presentation. The feeling of having someone outside your lab present your own data to you is unlike any other I’ve experienced and I can’t believe it’s taken this long for me to find this out! You know the feeling when someone tells you they read your paper with interest? It’s that times 1000. I could see what points we made very clear and which things we did helped the audience understand. I could see where there might be gaps where we might explain better from the questions the students had. The organization was also really well done. Sunnyjoy had a slideshow with different figures pulled up and had the names of various students written in the corner. So it was clear that they had read and prepared ahead of time and organized where each student might have a point they wanted to jump in to discuss.
For this journal club, we did something a bit different than I think they had ever done before. I asked ahead of time if I could bring Brae Bigge, a graduate student in our lab and lead author on the preprint. I thought Brae would enjoy it and would want to incorporate useful feedback into the next version of the preprint. This was also a really fantastic opportunity because we had preprinted the work in November and it was now March. Brae had a lot of beautiful new data that wasn’t in the preprint yet. So when some of the students asked questions, we switched the screen share so Brae could show her fresh new data obtained only a day or two earlier! She also could talk about other experiments she had tried but didn’t make it into the paper and details I have long forgotten. So we ended up having an incredibly rich discussion that covered the preprint itself, great questions by the journal club students, backstory and some context about the field by me, and brand new data, ideas, and directions from Brae! It was AWESOME!
For the last 10 minutes of the hour, the students had prepared some career questions for me that I really enjoyed discussing with them. Afterwards Brae and I messaged each other to excitedly say how much fun it was. I really enjoyed having a deep discussion with students who had read our paper carefully and it was so satisfying to be able to answer their questions with new data in addition to ideas and plans. I think some variations of senior authors at journal clubs is more prevalent but I strongly recommend 1) doing this for a preprint for all the reasons preprint journal clubs are great in being prior to peer review and in a stage where feedback can be easily incorporated, and 2) having both lead and senior authors at the discussion so all can benefit from the much broader view and backstory! Even beyond useful written feedback from preprint journal clubs and things like prelights or BioRxiv comments, this experience had the full networking benefits of us all actually meeting face to face (at least virtually) and getting to know each other a little.
So if you’re having journal club of any kind for your graduate program, class, or lab, maybe give this a try. I think all will really enjoy it!