SESYNC Graduate Student Research Program


Training and supporting graduate students to become the next generation of socio-environmental (S-E) researchers was core to SESYNC’s mission. While SESYNC encouraged all synthesis teams to include graduate students as equal members of their team, we also had a program dedicated specifically to graduate students’ development. This program provided students an array of opportunities to network across scholarly disciplines, gain critical collaboration and leadership skills, and submit interdisciplinary, multi-institutional research proposals. Cultivating these skills led to the opportunity to conduct original, team-based S-E synthesis research in SESYNC’s unique learning environment. There were two major elements of the program, as we describe below.

Graduate Networking and Skill-Building Workshops

SESYNC designed and organized workshops to enhance the knowledge, networks, and skills that students needed to effectively research and solve complex S-E problems, with particular focus on team science, communications, and systems thinking. The workshops fell into three categories that varied in terms of their goals: 

  1. Graduate Socio-Environmental Research Workshops 
  2. Graduate Socio-Environmental Leaders Workshops
  3. Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion in Socio-Environmental Synthesis Workshop

Over the program’s nine years, approximately 250 students participated in SESYNC’s nine graduate workshops (eight in-person and one virtual). Many graduate workshop participants went on to write successful proposals to conduct synthesis research at SESYNC and beyond.

Preliminary data on the impact of the program are impressive; a comprehensive study is currently underway.

Graduate Socio-Environmental Research Workshops

Our Graduate and S-E Research Workshops were the largest and longest-running of our SESYNC graduate workshops. For each workshop, 25–30 students, from across disciplines and from universities around the world, participated in four days of intensive skill-building and networking. Interactive workshop sessions featured noted interdisciplinary scholars and practitioners, speaking on topics from S-E systems thinking, to the science of team science, team building, interdisciplinary communication, and collaborative proposal writing. Following the first two days of networking and skill-building activities, students participated in heavily facilitated activities that synthesized individual research interests into the beginnings of interdisciplinary research projects and teams.


The second half of the workshop then moved into a team-based format, providing participants with opportunities to practice the skills they had learned and to develop and pitch early-stage proposals to a mock review panel for SESYNC’s competitive Graduate Team Research Program. Ultimately, the Graduate Student Workshop on Socio-Environmental Synthesis equipped participants with key knowledge and skills to lead or engage in interdisciplinary, multi-institutional research efforts outside of their degree-granting program. Many of the students in these workshops went on to develop competitive proposals they submitted to SESYNC’s Graduate Team Research Program, described below.  

Graduate Socio-Environmental Leaders Workshops

SESYNC also hosted a 2.5-day leadership workshop that allowed students to think about interdisciplinary research in the context of their own theses or dissertation projects. The workshop focused on: identifying disciplinary gaps, developing interdisciplinary questions, systems-level thinking, capturing complex processes in research designs, blending disparate ideas and information, working collaboratively, and communicating research to diverse audiences. Attendees received leadership training as a critical means of advancing synthesis research and effecting lasting change. Immersing students in synthesis and data-driven concepts, theories, frameworks, methods, and skills, the workshop served as a catalyst for students who wanted to broaden their thinking and make their research more interdisciplinary and impactful.

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in Socio-Environmental Synthesis Workshop 

Conceptualized in partnership with the Ecological Society of America’s Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability (SEEDS) program, SESYNC launched a Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion in Socio-Environmental Synthesis Workshop in the fall of 2019. The goals were to: 

  1. Celebrate the insights, abilities, and problem-solving capacities gained from embracing diverse backgrounds and identities in S-E synthesis research and on teams 
  2. Promote supportive networks and community building
  3. Provide a research platform to channel such benefits into fully funded, independent, interdisciplinary team research experiences that help advance and highlight underrepresented voices and contributions in science.

Due to the onset of COVID-19, SESYNC re-envisioned the workshop as a virtual summer series. Over an 8-week period, 25 students gathered weekly for two hours of intensive and interactive online training. Each week’s session focused on a different topic—such as “Enhancing Capacities to Promote Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ)” and “Advancing DEIJ with Actionable Science”—to help participants build the skill set needed to undertake an interdisciplinary S-E research collaboration, while simultaneously advancing DEIJ through research practices, processes, and outcomes. In addition to weekly Zoom sessions, workshop participants engaged in DEI-related forums, built community through social happy hours and Slack groups, and regularly interacted with a team of mentors who heavily engage in promoting inclusion and diversity in science, and who themselves identify with a wide range of under-represented minority communities. The partnerships SESYNC built during this workshop series were critical to its success and the creation of a welcoming, open, and inviting space.

Graduate Team Research Program

SESYNC modeled research opportunities for graduate student teams around genuine, collaborative research experiences in the real world. We initiated them through a competitive request for S-E synthesis research proposals, open to graduate students from U.S. and international institutions of higher education. SESYNC leaders provided extensive support prior to, during, and following graduate team projects. This support included encouraging all students interested in proposing a team project to work iteratively with SESYNC on proposal development, team formation, and project design.  

After their proposals underwent an external peer review, the leaders of successful proposals traveled to SESYNC for a two-day training on scientific leadership and project management. During this kick-off training, leaders learned how to successfully initiate a Team Synthesis Project and integrate into the SESYNC community. For example, leaders practiced how to draft team and authorship agreements, design effective team meetings, facilitate discussions, and resolve conflicts. Sessions immersed leaders deeper into the dynamics of teams—including how to harness disparate strengths and maintain engagement and momentum; they also introduced a suite of time- and project-management best practices and resources. In addition, leaders participated in activities and discussions that exposed them to different leadership styles and encouraged them to reflect on their own brand of leadership and how to best work with their co-lead to meet their team’s needs. 

Graduate synthesis teams comprised up to seven students who had not previously worked together and represented diverse backgrounds, institutions, and disciplines. Their projects included integrating disparate data to address pressing S-E questions related to topics widely ranging from climate gentrification to coral reef and fisheries degradation to temporary conservation on working lands to human-fire relationships.   

Each team met at SESYNC up to four times, with each 3-4-day meeting serving as a short burst of intense collaboration for projects otherwise conducted in a distributed manner online. SESYNC leadership met with team leads at the beginning and end of each in-person meeting to answer questions and provide feedback and guidance. Other assistance regularly included help with agenda planning, meeting facilitation, workflow strategizing, product generation, and team dynamics. SESYNC leadership kept in regular contact with all team leads and ensured that they had the opportunity to network with and learn from each other by hosting regular cohort-wide check-in calls and arranging multi-team social opportunities in Annapolis. Team leads ended their in-person interactions with SESYNC leadership with a one-day wrap up meeting that showcased project progress to date and carved out time for group discussions on lessons learned in science leadership, teamwork, and synthesis research.

As with all team meetings, SESYNC covered all travel and meeting costs, offered science communication resources, cyberinfrastructure, and computational support, and covered publication fees. More than 30 publications resulted from Graduate-Led Synthesis Project. In total, SESYNC supported 246 graduate students across 34 graduate research teams. Graduate Pursuit participants—who hailed from more than 80 different academic institutions and more than 25 countries of origin—conducted independent socio-environmental synthesis research over a 12–18 month period.