Meet YoDA! Young DANDRITE or Grandmaster of the Jedi Order?

Meet Young DANDRITE, or YoDA, the association of early-career researchers uniting the scientists at DANDRITE

6 women and 5 men standing on stairs in a research center
YoDA Organizing Committee; Photo: Gretchen Repasky

As part of our Behind the Science series, I recently caught up with the organizing committee of Young DANDRITE (YoDA), the community of early-career researchers at the Danish Research Institute of Translational Neuroscience, DANDRITE. I took the opportunity to learn more about them, and found myself inspired.

YoDA is more than a community of students and postdocs. It is a bottom-up, broad community-in-action with strong support from the DANDRITE management. YoDA grew out of a positive desire to unite those working in different DANDRITE research groups. It is a group of “career-young” people who provide a mechanism to receive ideas from the community – ideas for social, scientific and career-oriented events, networking, activities for retreats, and a variety of workshops. 

Co-creation: the young community and administration join forces

YoDA was established around the same time that DANDRITE’s research activities kicked-off in 2013. YoDA’s mission then was the same as it is now, explained by Mads Christensen, a PhD student in Poul Nissen’s group: “to promote interactions between the different research groups within DANDRITE, interactions which would be both scientifically and socially beneficial.”

Early on, the DANDRITE management was looking for ways to unite the research groups, who have labs in different buildings. Karen Marie Juul Sørensen, a PhD student in Anders Nykjærs group, expands on the importance of joining forces with the administration to do this:

“The group [YoDA] came about as a request or an idea, from the young community because we are in different buildings. It's nice to do something which is connecting everybody. But of course, if it's just a bottom-up effort with no support from the top, it wouldn’t matter. And if only top-down with no support from us, it also wouldn’t matter. So it's really a connected thing between both sides. We can do idea generation and then we're actually supported for the voice of the ideas.”

Astrid Munk, Research Group Coordinator in the DANDRITE administration team is currently providing hands-on support to YoDA.

Conversely, YoDA sometimes is the “helping hand of the management when it comes to activities like the DANDRITE retreat,” explains Katia Soud, a PhD Student in Tomonori Takeuchi’s group. 

At the most recent DANDRITE retreat, all researchers participated in a networking activity to raise awareness about the expertise at the institute. The activity was received very positively across the institute and provided plenty of follow-up opportunities. Karen Marie emphasizes the meaningful collaboration between the administration and young research community, “I think that shows that we are supported, because it was us young researchers who suggested the idea. And it happened! It’s motivating that we are arranging something and the PI's are joining, appreciating and pushing it further.”

Challenge: uniting the community

Mads expanded on the need behind uniting the DANDRITE community: “not only are we spread out in physical space, we are also separated between two different faculties, Health and Natural Science. There are a lot of differences and making everything come together, I see as a major challenge.”

YoDA strives to create an open, inclusive and welcoming atmosphere at DANDRITE. Meike Sieburg, a postdoc in Marco Capogna’s lab explains one approach that YoDA takes: “one way to do it is actually to do events and internal meetings. These make people see each other.” She continues, “that's why it's also important for us that we have members from all different buildings, and different career levels, from master students to PhDs, research assistants and postdocs.” 

Meike also explained that YoDA maintains a Facebook page where they inform the community about scientific events that are going on at the university, in the local Aarhus area, and online, that could be interesting. This additional layer of event advertising helps the young DANDRITE community follow events that are relevant.

Social events serve a complementary purpose to the scientific internal meetings and talks. Katia found YoDA in only her second day at DANDRITE. “YoDA got me into the whole of DANDRITE. Besides the internal meetings, where you really see serious science, with YoDA events, I meet the people behind the experiments, where it’s more casual.”

Support to the international community is essential, especially during the recent years with the COVID-19 pandemic. Katia explains: “we are very much an international community here at DANDRITE. So a big part of working and studying here is to feel that you are surrounded by welcoming people.” 

YoDA is represented by an organizing committee, currently nine members, and the YoDA spirit of inclusivity stretches also to this committee. All from DANDRITE are invited to attend committee meetings. The committee is not elected and there is no maximum number of persons that can serve on it. Mads explains, “it’s not something we have to do; it’s something we choose to do. We all feel like we benefit from it, even just getting to know each other. Being part of something like YoDA is fun.”

Any early-career scientist in the community is welcome to propose activities by contacting the organizing committee or the DANDRITE administration. Mads encourages that contact: “we also offer the opportunity for people in DANDRITE to contact us if they have a speaker in mind, or they have an idea for a specific talk or a program or something that they want to have a seminar or a one-day event on. Then we provide the opportunity to help them organize it.”

Action: from methods to careers

I asked the YoDA representatives to tell me about their most creative event, or activity they are most proud of. Interestingly, I received a variety of different answers, likely reflecting the variety of wishes from the community. 

The ‘Methods Café’ is one of the newest YoDA initiatives. In the Methods Café all DANDRITE scientists are invited to share knowledge about techniques, technologies, and methods that others in the institute may benefit from. Katia explains the approach, “I think what's really interesting about this Café is that it's very hands-on. Everyone brings their laptop and tries at the same time. And actually from one session on Biorender, we had interest from the PI's, too. And now it's more official, like maybe we should actually be using this tool.”

Interesting activities are in store for the Methods Café. A DANDRITE-affiliated member will soon visit the Café to talk about her experience with JoVE, The Journal of Visualized Experiments which publishes peer-reviewed articles supported by video format.

Also in response to my question, several YoDA members described the ‘Career Cafe’, a series of talks that grew out of the wish for more input on science and science-related careers. In the Café, experts in different careers give talks on the theme of what one can do with a PhD in health sciences. DANDRITE alumni have also presented in the series. 

Workshops in grant writing and procrastination were also mentioned with special note of lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pia Boxy, a PhD student in Anders Nykjær’s group explained, “it was great that we actually found out during the lockdown (spring 2020) that we can utilize Zoom to invite people from around the world to give these workshops. For example, Cathie Edwards, a trainer from New Zealand, gave a talk on procrastination. It was quite interactive. And she also gave us guides on how to manage yourself, when you are procrastinating.” 

Drive: passion and a collective voice

I asked the YoDA representatives what makes them each interested in fostering a greater community in their research center. 

For Meike, it’s second nature: “I think I've always done something like this at every step of my career. It was one thing I found attractive about university because I knew I could continue doing this besides my job. And, for me, it's really fun organizing things, communicating with different parties.” 

Pia agrees with Meike and finds the positive effect on the international community particularly rewarding: “I think also mostly like Meike. I was also always interested in being part of these organization teams, but it is also something that is applicable to internationals. YoDA was nice when I first came here and didn’t know any people. So, it's more of an opportunity for you to meet some young people, both internationals, but also Danish people. And by organising these events, you also get to meet other people from outside this building. So in that way, you also expand your social circle, which I think is a really great opportunity being in YoDA, as well.”

Katia, who is detecting dopamine release as part of her PhD studies, acknowledges the reward: “this dopamine rush when you get when you feel the reward, when you see people, for example, finding an idea interesting and then joining an activity, you all had planned together - you're determining how people use their time, in a way, in a nice way. I would like to be able to either represent some voices or just be able to help create better experiences for other people.”

Karen Marie expanded on Katia’s point about representing multiple voices: “I think we do get a stronger voice [from YoDA], because the young community is also always asked to do something for the retreats. For these big meetings, it can be team building, or suggesting a speaker or something similar. So I really feel that it is actually supporting a voice. And that the young community has somewhere to go with requests or ideas instead of always going directly to their PI.”

The early-career scientist voice at DANDRITE is also strongly provided by the PhD student and postdoc spokespersons that join the regular DANDRITE business meetings. These spokespersons are currently Gergo Kovacs, a postdoc in Poul Henning Jensen’s group, and Lucie Woloszczuková, a PhD student in Anders Nykjær’s group.  


All the YoDA committee members agreed with me that YoDA sets a positive example for early-career researchers in other organizations. In fact, colleagues from other universities have already reached out to YoDA members to ask about their experiences. Katia explains her take on serving as a model for others: “maybe this is too idealistic, but people could look at our experience and say whether it’s working or not and how they can maybe replicate even a small part of it.”

Talking with the YoDA reps reminded me of the importance of community building, and the inspiration in being able to do it your way. Similar to the wise words of the Grandmaster of the Jedi Order, himself: “Your path you must decide.” — Yoda


Katia Soud, Pia Boxy, Lucie Woloszczuková, Ea Trond Hvid Jensen, Meike Sieburg, Mads Christensen, Kristyna Safrankova, Nanna Møller Jensen, and Karen Marie Juul Sørensen make up the YoDA Organizing Committee as of November 2021.

The “Behind the Science” profile series takes an in-depth look at a researcher or group within the Nordic EMBL Partnership.