OrganoVIR’s Young Researchers Go Beyond Science with the BeyondU Personal Development Plan

*photo was taken before COVID-19

At organovir young researchers will be more successful in their role as a leader after they have become aware of their human skills.


Personal development may not be the first thing that comes to a person’s mind when they think about young researchers in the lab. However, Katja Wolthers and Dasja Pajkrt – coordinators of organovir, an EU 2020 consortium and an Innovative Training Network (ITN) under the EU Horizon 2020 research programme that trains 15 young researchers in organoid technology for virology – realized that the next generation of PhD students (or Early Stage Researchers (ESRs)) must develop humans skills as well as scientific skills in order to increase their career perspectives and employability, and ensures a balanced and healthy life.


In organovir’s Personal Developmental Plan (PDP), a full programme was initiated to help their self-development and career planning for the next three years and beyond that will focus on the following aspects: own ambition and opportunities in career development, gender issues, work-life balance, strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats.


Having followed a PDP program herself while attending a global executive MBA at the Rotterdam School of Management, Dasja found the PDP to be helpful in many ways. The PDP helped her to observe differences in leadership styles, ways of communication, and organizational skills, which in turn helps her to become more aware of her personal values in life and at work.


Developing the Next Generation of Scientists


Ingrid Valks – founder of The Power of Time Off, an international initiative for well-being and personal growth with an emphasis on developing human-skills – is the mastermind behind  organovir’s BeyondU PDP. She had one goal in mind when she designed the PDP: to develop the next generation of young scientists who are scientifically capable, highly skilled, and well-rounded individuals. She wanted to train organovir’s ESRs to be human at work and become role models that are confident and resilient leaders of the 21st-century.


To achieve her goal, Ingrid Valks designed the “Humanity and Vitality Wheel”, with ‘practicing well-being as a foundation skill’ at the center and six pillars surrounding it to train 21st century leaders (as seen in Figure 1).

Figure 1. Infographic of PDP Modules; the Humanity and Vitality Wheel


At the heart of the PDP are the virtual vitality and well-being courses (as seen in Figure 1), which involves nutrition to boost the immune system, yin body movement to relieve stress and learn to relax, meditation and nature-connection for improved mental well-being and to deepen human connection, including with ourselves; the #1 skill to thrive in these times of constant change. It is important to take care of our mind and body by maintaining a nutritious diet, without it, our mind and body will not be able to function properly. Furthermore, without taking proper care of our mind and body, we will not be able to maintain healthier physical and mental health. Moreover, meditation is essential to healthy mental health and to have a more balanced life. This brings us to nature-connection, which is one of the keys to a balanced work-life, as taking the time in nature will help restore both mind and body in our busy lives.


Outside the vitality courses are the six pillars of the PDP (as seen in the Figure 1). In six PDP pillars organovir’s ESRs are guided by Ingrid Valks with live masterclasses and online interactions, to achieve a better understanding of their purpose and passion in life, discover their own identity and how to represent it to the outside world, understand how cultural differences affect their social and work communication, increase emotional intelligence (compassion, consciousness, and connectedness), integrate behavior learned during the modules, and lastly, to train ESRs to recognize and lead ethical dilemmas.


VAGABOND’s Journey to Discovering the PDP


In 2019, the EU ITN (Innovative Training Network) VAGABOND was created. Just like organovir (also an EU ITN) VAGABOND shares the same principle – that early stage researchers (ESRs) must develop human skills beyond their scientific skills.


“We were looking for an innovative course that is different from daily science and offers another way of thinking” Celina Szanto, Project Manager of VAGABOND, shared when asked how VAGABOND discovered the PDP. Initially, VAGABOND planned to create a single day course or workshop. However, they realized that this would not be sufficient enough and shortly they learned that organovir had included BeyondU in their training program.


When asked about the importance of personal development, Celina revealed that personal development and well-being are often overlooked during a PhD. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Nature in 2019 (pre-COVID), 76% of the PhD students worked more than 41 hours a week. Luckily, in recent years, more universities are offering courses related to personal development and well-being, which can be helpful to tackle stress, mental health, an improved work-life balance and last but not least more self-awareness and confidence.  The European Union (EU) also acknowledges the importance of incorporating the PDP in their ITNs to improve employability, innovation and competitiveness, and as a result have granted funding for both organovir and VAGABOND.


The PDP through our ESR’s Eyes


So what was the effect of the PDP for the ESRs in organovir? We asked six of our ESRs about their personal experience with the PDP.


The program kicked off with a day-long session of discovering purpose as your NorthStar,  yoga, meditation, and personal reflection and was one year before the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the day that Andrew Barnhart described as the day that brought organovir’s ESRs closer together; “I think moments like those really allowed us all to stay connected throughout the pandemic”.


However, as the world went into lockdown, organovir’s PDP meetings became virtually. Ingrid Valks came up with creative solutions to continue the personal development sessions. She provided entertaining and informative virtual sessions that covered topics such as stress management, emotional intelligence, leadership, understanding how to decode cultural codes to create a universal understanding and communication, and how to use one’s voice to boost professional influence. The ESRs even had the opportunity to attend workshops, such as the posture and vocalization workshop.


Kevin Laurensius Lie, ESR from Indonesia, was one of our ESRs who enjoyed the meditation courses and the posture and vocalization workshop a lot. Kevin’s most favourite moment during his PDP journey was the nature-based meditation. “I really enjoyed the program and the concept, as it was relaxing and healing. It helped me to be back in touch with myself in a gentle manner”.


The PDP modules also provided our ESRs with the opportunity to follow virtual retreats, such as the STRESS LESS WITH YIN IN YOUR YANG LIFE retreat and learn exercises such as the Nidra relaxation and face yoga, which ESR Nânci Ferreira thought was fantastic. “It helped me connect even more with myself, my roots, and my surroundings”.


Nânci also shared how the PDP helped her to find some balance between the rushed days of laboratory work and time for herself. ESR Igor Coqueiro relates to this sentiment, stating how the PDP reminded him that “Through the PDP, I started to have more compassion with my imperfections, limitations and many more. I find that this helped me understand myself even more”. Additionally, Andrew also shared how the program taught him to be more grounded and how he has been cycling and taking walks in nature to bring a rekindled sense of belonging.


Overall, the BeyondU PDP has had a positive impact on our ESRs. As ESR Mahya Hosseini Bondarabadi shared about her experience with the PDP sessions, “I discovered new competencies and I also learned how to tackle work challenges. I started to look at life and my personal values with wider eyes”. We can proudly share that the virtual sessions are fruitful and insightful, as our ESRs stated that applying the lessons that they learned during the PDP sessions have helped them in their personal and work life. “I have been integrating the lessons that I have learned from the sessions into my life. I think that they have helped me to see myself from the outside, understand others better, understand my work values better, and be more present in the moment.”Asli Aybike Dogan, ESR at organovir.


Here Comes the Next Generation of Scientists…


In conclusion, although ‘personal development’ and ‘young researchers’ are not exactly words that people would put next to each other at a first glance, ESRs shared with us they wanted to join organovir also because of the focus on the human side in the training program. Having a PDP program is important to develop the next generation of scientists who are more well-rounded individuals. As previously mentioned, offering courses related to personal development and practising (mental) well-being as a foundation skill can help young researchers tackle stress, have a more balanced life and boost their professional influence. Based on testimonies from organovir’s ESRs (or if we may say, next generation of scientists and leaders of organoid technology for virus research) that  followed the PDP modules we can proudly state that the BeyondU Personal Development Plan has helped them gain a better understanding of their purpose, identity, values and beliefs, and emotional competencies while integrating a 21st-century leader’s behaviour and learning how to recognize and lead ethical dilemmas.


To know more about the Personal Development Plan, please contact:

Ingrid Valks

+31 (0)651097805