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Interview with Dr. Jodi Schneider - MSCA Fellow



Jodi Schneider is an assistant professor at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. She studies scholarly communication and social media through the lens of arguments, evidence, and persuasion. She is developing Linked Data (ontologies, metadata, Semantic Web) approaches to manage scientific evidence. Jodi holds degrees in informatics (Ph.D., National University of Ireland, Galway), library & information science (M.S. UIUC), mathematics (M.A. UT-Austin), and liberal arts (B.A., Great Books, St. John's College). She has worked as an actuarial analyst for a Fortune 500 insuance company, as the gift buyer for a small independent bookstore, and in college and university libraries. As part of her Marie Curie grant, Jodi worked on semantic web for information management, at the WIMMICS lab Inria Sophia Antipolis, France. She has also held research positions across the U.S. as well as in Ireland, England, France and Chile.


-Photo Credit: CC-BY Sebastiaan ter Burg


Could you tell a bit about your experience as a female scientist within your research field?

When I trained in math, barely a third of my fellow graduate students were women, and just a handful of professors. In my current department (information science), the split is about 50-50 among the professors, which is far more comfortable.


Why did you decide to apply to MSCA? How would you say the experience contributed to your personal and professional growth?

As I finished up my PhD I knew that I wanted to do a postdoc, to get more experience and to dig into my research. I applied for my first MSCA project, a COFUND, about six months before submitting my thesis, and I started the project shortly after defending my PhD. Since I had my own funding, I got a lot of freedom to work on my own projects, including my first big grant application. My 18 months as an MSCA COFUND fellow was a really crucial period for me to reflect on the work that I wanted to do, and to set myself up for greater security in my career.


What would you say the biggest challenge in the application process was? How did you overcome it?

Applying for the COFUND was really easy: the website explained all the steps, and the process was straightforward. The only challenge was finding an appropriate mentor, out of the participating institutions. I made a connection through one of my PhD supervisors. I set up a Skype call to talk with a researcher who supervises a large group and one of the group member whose work overlapped with mine. We talked about our general research areas and he suggested I write him with an idea in 2-3 sentences. We went back and forth a few times to refine the idea. After that it wasn’t too hard to put together the materials – my CV, a project description, and so forth. In fact, dealing with French security checks and visa formalities was the only hard part of the process!

During my COFUND, I applied for a Marie Skłodowska Curie Individual Fellowship. That was a much more serious application. Connecting to an appropriate mentor was still one of the more challenging parts. Again, my network was invaluable here: a senior colleague put me in touch with his PhD advisor whose work was in just the right area. The process involved writing about 10 pages for the project proposal, and collecting other information about the host university, my CV, etc. The proposal scored well but wasn’t quite competitive enough to get funding. Even so, the process of applying was quite useful to me: I got to visit my prospective host and her research group, making a lasting connection. And the proposal I wrote still has some key ideas that I go back to for work that I’m currently planning. It really made the ideas crisper in my mind.


Do you think it is important for researchers to have a mentor? Why/Why not?

  • Both mentoring and being mentored are very important as a researcher. Research can be solitary work, we spend a lot of time thinking and writing. Sometimes an outside perspective can really help! I have multiple different mentors at any given time. At various times, my mentors have helped me prioritize opportunities, develop new work practices, improve my arguing skills, get through the stresses of grad school, get funding and jobs, and so forth!

From your experiences, how does the research environment in Europe differ from that in North America, if at all? And, how do you think EURAXESS North America can further promote research collaborations between Europe and North America?

  • In Europe, each country has its own national funding agencies as well as access to European Commission funding like Horizon2020 (the successor of FP7). European funding particularly promotes research partnerships that span multiple countries. Other important funding comes from the European Research Council which attracts the top echelon of researchers worldwide with long-term funding and from COST Actions which promote cross-national networking groups.

Work styles can depend a bit on the country. For instance, France is the only place I’ve worked where the default email client had a “send later” button (a feature I really like: you can send email at 2 AM but have it arrive in a colleague’s inbox at 10AM). In France everything stops for lunch, and the entire research group would frequently go to lunch together at the work cafeteria (more like a restaurant by US standards!). Lunch conversations can be quite heated and wide-ranging: compared to the US, in French culture, politics is a much more acceptable topic whereas personal lives are less often discussed. Vacations and off-line time are taken much more seriously in France: I think this is very healthy and great for deep thinking!

For starting new projects across the Atlantic, direct contact between researchers is critical. Promoting avenues for seed funding and introducing researchers in cognate areas could be instrumental. For instance, COST has funding for short-term scientific missions which can support travel for short, focused research visits. Many countries have specific calls for young researchers that could be relevant, as well as bilateral funding agreements. Mostly people hear about these from people who’ve gotten them before, so spreading the word, as well as connecting people are both needed.


What would you tell someone who is hesitant to apply? Would be great if you can direct a specific message to female scientists.

Research is international, and ideas travel through people. Mobility between countries can be a huge boost to your career. It can be a great personal experience, too: my partner was able to follow me, so got a first opportunity to live abroad. Some fellowships, including the Marie Skłodowska Curie Individual Fellowship, provide generous funding for an accompanying family.


Finally, what’s next for you?

I’m just finishing up my first academic year as an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, which is at the very top of my field. My PhD student is about to submit her first paper, and my second batch of information organization and access students have just finished up their course. For the summer I’ll be digging into a writing project, actually, that I started as a COFUND fellow: surveying the new field of argumentation mining, this time for a small Morgan & Claypool book!