Interview with Gonzalo Parra

It all started in one of the monthly meetings. Ten, maybe fifteen people in a video conference, all from different countries, almost all of us doing a PhD abroad. We had gathered, as we did once a month, to discuss the progress of the preparation for the 2018 European Student Council Symposium. It was still early - we had almost a year to go. Yet it was not too soon to answer the most important question: how would we draw students to the event? Why should anyone take a day off and join us for talks, presentations, and discussions?

“Well”, we asked ourselves, “what was it that made people attend previous events?” We decided to reach out and ask. We contacted previous organizers, people that were involved with Regional Student Groups, members of the ISCB Student Council, previous attendees, and we asked them how and why.

One of the ideal candidates for this sort of interview is Gonzalo Parra. The secretary of the ISCB Student Council, co-founder and ex-president of RSG Argentina, veteran of multiple Student Council symposia, and networker extraordinaire, he is a current colleague of mine at the MPIBPC in Göttingen, Germany, so securing an interview was not particularly hard. Gonzalo is fairly talkative, especially when he is in a good mood, and he was more than happy to share his experiences and answer my questions.


A road of necessity

"So, Gonzalo, how did it all start for you?" I ask him.

His beginning is familiar to many Bioinformaticians of his generation. He joined a newly established Bioinformatics program without a very clear idea about what Bioinformatics was in the first place. The curriculum was still fluid and things could change from one semester to the other: "We didn’t know which groups we could go to for a PhD after finishing, or which groups offered topics for an undergrad thesis. Every year we had to really check with the University authorities if we even had professors", he says.

In 2009, the first ever Argentinian conference for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology takes place. "We saw that there were other students, coming from Biology, from Physics, students with a Computer Science background, and they all needed the same things as we did, and even more. There were no programs, no workshops, no lead on how could we do something about [what was missing]."

Lack of resources and problems with university curricula is not an uncommon problem in Argentina, says Gonzalo - students self-organize and exert pressure so that their needs are put on the authorities’ agenda: "We had a meeting [at the conference], and we just agreed it would be nice if we could organize ourselves in order to create a Student Council in Argentina. At this time we didn't know about the ISCB or anything."

But a few months later they find out, and after a year of preparation the Regional Student Group (RSG) Argentina is founded, with Gonzalo, now a PhD student, serving as the first president. After this, things start snowballing: Gonzalo attends the ISMB conference in Berlin, meeting members of the Student Council and representatives of other RSGs. Shortly afterwards, RSG Argentina is tasked with organizing the inaugural Latin American Student Council symposium in Brazil. Gonzalo, not the president any more, is responsible for this: "We had no contacts in Brazil, we didn't know anyone in Brazil [...] Basically I searched for people interested in constituting the organizing committee for the symposium. I started writing in random web forums about Bioinformatics from Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Chile, Venezuela and so on."

The symposium is a huge success, and sparks the creation of new RSGs. With valuable know-how and support from Argentina, RSGs soon sprout in Chile, Brazil, Mexico, and, most recently, Colombia. Gonzalo is now the RSG Latin America chair, coordinating cooperation between the various RSGs - and notices the next problem: "It is difficult in a world-wide organization to know what are the specific problems of a region [...] I felt that sometimes Latin America was not really understood. [...] So I decided that if we wanted the council to take into account the Latin American perspective, we needed a Latin American representative in the council."

By now, he is something of a known quantity. His passion for the cause and his efficacy in his various posts are known, and his candidacy gathers the support of the Latin American RSGs. He is elected to the executive committee as secretary, his colleagues the very people who recruited them to the cause back in Berlin. He describes the workings of the committee as more of a group effort: "In our executive committee the roles are not really defined - we all do as much as we can. Of course there are certain responsibilities that are exclusive to one person. [...] We have different tasks. Whoever wants to take the lead takes the lead and the rest help."


A host of reasons

So this is how it started. Gonzalo describes a path of necessity. Self-organization to provide resources and training, first independently and then under the ISCB mantle. Different roles in the RSG and in the Student Council to foster networking and represent his region. Without planning it, he has already spoken at length about his reasons for being involved. With our question in mind, I ask him again: why did he do all of that?

He starts from the beginning, and from necessity, again: "In Argentina, nothing existed, and we needed [multiple things]. Some people needed to take the lead on this, and at that moment because of the circumstances it was me, but it could have been somebody else."

He admits however that necessity is not the only reason. There is gratification in acting according to your personality ("I enjoy the spotlight, but also being responsible for [...] organizing stuff.”) and contributing to the community. This is validated by the continuity of his efforts: "When I look back and i see all the things I contributed to, I feel really proud. But not proud of myself; I feel proud because this is still working [...] I am not the president of RSG Argentina any more, but still RSG Argentina is working pretty well. So we started something that is useful [...] I'm not the chair any more, I'm not involved, but it still goes on."

This, to him, is not a personal achievement: "These things are a legacy that is kind of yours, but not only yours; it belongs to the whole team that helped you along this path. And I think this is the nicer thing, because in science a lot of people think that things are done by themselves."

He recalls his first volunteer experience, pinning number tags for hundreds of posters, and how it shaped his view: "There you realize how much work is required to organize everything. And then you start to also appreciate it [...] because most [helpers], the ones that are in science, are not paid, they are volunteers."

Volunteering to hand out lunch packages and pin poster tags is, to him, the same as being part of an RSG, of serving in the Student Council: "I think this is very precious but also necessary. Somebody needs to do it."


The pay-off (?)

Yet this is not all. Gonzalo is quick to point out that there are unexpected rewards, collateral almost. He moves his hand like a teacher, pointing at the wall: "Contacts and networking in human groups are the most important elements to take into account", and participating in the Student Council is a prime networking opportunity. It gives you access to people from all levels and all sectors within your field: "If I ever have a problem I know who to ask for help", he says. And if there is no one to help, they can at least refer you to someone who can, a person who otherwise might be unapproachable: "If I go to someone out of the blue and ask them 'hey, give me some of your time to discuss my specific problem' [it is less likely they will answer]".

The Student Council gives you exposure and a lot of connections in exchange for your time and effort, he continues. After all, the Student Council is a nest for potential leaders in science, people who might in the future occupy positions of importance, he claims. A quick Google survey of previous Student Council symposia organizers is enough to verify this claim. "I encourage everybody to become part of the Student Council", he says. "I am sure it will pay off for you - it has already paid off for me."

It may seem that he has reaped the fruit of his labors, but he denies that things are so obvious. While knowing the most important researchers in the world or simply knowing the right people can make a difference in your career, he keeps saying, again and again, that this is not the most important thing: "The satisfaction of being useful for your community is unique. When you get yourself into the organization of a symposium - international or local - when you finish after all these months of work you feel really satisfied. Not only because of the result, but because of the team you set up. You feel part of a family."

And then he returns, for a final time, to the belief that dominated his story, to his biggest reason: "Someone needs to do this. Somebody needs to organize the community. Somebody needs to help to build up this society. Why not you?"


Follow Gonzalo on twitter at @GonzaParra_. Niko tweets as @galicae - let him know what you thought of this! For more content about the ESCS follow the official account of the ISCB student council at @iscbsc.