Spotlight on Communication experts: A Neuronet Blog with Cindy Birck

Neuronet is a Coordination and Support Action for the Innovative Medicines Initiative’s research projects on neurodegeneration. As part of our work, we conveyed a Communication Expert Community, comprising of communication representatives from the individual projects who met on a regular basis to exchange on common challenges and best practice examples – amongst others. In this second edition of our communication blog, we feature a contribution by our group member Cindy Birck who is involved in several of these projects, such as EPAD and AMYPAD.

What’s your background?

I studied molecular and cell biology. And so I began my journey in academia by first completing my bachelor and then my master’s degree. After finishing my undergraduate studies in France, I went to the University of Luxembourg to pursue my PhD in neurobiology. My thesis was focused on the major cell of the central nervous system – the “astrocyte”. In November 2016, I was awarded the title of Doctor in Biology for my PhD thesis entitled “Astrocyte phenotype during differentiation: implication of the NFkB pathway”.

Since January 2017, I work as Project Officer at Alzheimer Europe (Luxembourg), an umbrella organisation of 35 national Alzheimer’s associations from 32 European countries. It is a non-profit non-governmental organisation (NGO) aiming to provide a voice to people with dementia and their carers, make dementia a European priority, change perceptions and combat stigma, raise awareness of brain health and prevention, strengthen the European dementia movement and support dementia research.

How did you get into project management and communications?

After my PhD, I was looking for new challenges. My PhD gave me the opportunity to collaborate with several European researchers and to acquire a large range of new skills. I am well-organised, curious with good organisational and decision-making skills, bringing me to the field of management and communications.

I joined Alzheimer Europe and got the opportunity to work on several European projects (such as EPAD and AMYPAD) where I have management, communication and dissemination responsibilities. These tasks are a core part of any project to ensure that project activities and results are communicated and shared with the internal and external stakeholders in a clear, consistent and effective manner.

What does it mean to be an effective communicator?

An effective communicator should understand the target audience, connect with it at the right time and place using the appropriate messages! This could be challenging to clarify the relationship between audiences, messages, channels, activities and tools but right communication skills are essential for achieving success! When you are looking to build an effective communication strategy, you will need to develop a communication plan at the beginning of the project; this will increase the chances for success and ensure efficient use of resources. You can also conduct a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis within the project’s scope to develop or update your strategic planning.

What is/are your favourite tool(s) that help(s) you to be an effective communications specialist?

To ensure meaningful internal communication, Teamwork is a nice project management software. It offers access to documents, materials, templates and other key project information to each project member. The access is restricted and it gives you tools for project management , including file storage and time tracking.

Hootsuite is a social media management platform, allowing to manage multiple social media networks at the same time. It allows you to stay organised, centralise your communication and save a lot of time.

Could you tell us a few resources from where you get audio & visual materials for content creation? (such as

I use Shutterstock, it is a provider of stock images. I also use Canva to create social media posts, you can use it to create presentations, posters, videos and logos.

What do you enjoy about working on public-private partnerships in life sciences? What challenges do you see/ encounter?

I am lucky to be part of several collaborative research initiatives in life sciences where I learn every day. It is rewarding and interesting to work on different projects and approaches. Public-private partnerships offer a framework to establish new collaborations and promote existing ones with different institutions to create an active community of key actors working towards common goals. I enjoy the interactions between the pharmaceutical sector, academic research and patient organisations. Each group adds another valuable opinion and input on how to think strategically, collaborate and present information.

The multinational interdisciplinary consortia are a major strength of any project. While there are great advantages to having such partnerships, it also brings challenges in terms of implementing effective procedures and clear guidelines. This could include data collection, internal communication or regulatory agreements which are increasingly complex and different in each country. Of course, the COVID19 pandemic has not helped. I am confident that these hurdles can be overcome with an engaged and well-organised team, aiming to provide fast solutions and allowing all partners to move in the same direction.

Has being part of Neuronet’s communication expert group benefited you? If so, how?

Connecting with Neuronet’s communication expert group has opened up opportunities to acquire new expertise and make new connections. Having discussions with the team helps me to identify gaps, exchange on ideas and share knowledge. It is also very nice to have communication experts joining forces in order to learn new skills and address common communication challenges. It was a learning experience, finding new ways to communicate effectively and share information is hugely important to the success of any project!

What do you enjoy most about your work? What is your proudest achievement?

I enjoy very much working with public and private sector organisations across Europe. I have an academic background and love working with people especially with scientists to stay up to date with the latest discoveries, but also do something that impact patients’ life. Moreover, I am pleased with being a meaningful support to scientists by disseminating their results and project progress in a lay language.

Alzheimer Europe is keen to promote the involvement of people with dementia in research, in the context of Public Involvement (PI). PI is about involving people with dementia in the research process, but not as participants, in other terms; it is to carry out research and developing policies with or by members of the public and patients rather than on or for them. It is about creating a partnership between researchers and the public/patients, whereby all contribute collaboratively in varying degrees towards the research process or the research output.

I am really proud to lead the Clinical Trials Watch, an online database providing accessible and up-to-date information on Phase II/III clinical trials that are investigating drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and/or dementia in Europe. For this resource, I am working in close collaboration with members of Alzheimer Europe’s Working Group of People with Dementia (EWGPWD) to ensure that the information provided is user-friendly and understandable for a lay person. Working with them is truly enriching.

What single piece of advice would you give to an early career researcher?

Follow your interests, be curious and do science as collaboratively as possible!