Spotlight on Communication experts: A Neuronet Blog with Yoanna de Geus

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 first edition of our communication blog, we feature a contribution by our groupd member Yoanna de Geus who is involved in several of these projects, including RADAR-AD, RADAR-CNS and others.

What’s your background?

I have a MA degree from Leiden University (The Netherlands) in International Relations with a focus on global political culture. Professionally, I’ve worked extensively on international projects in the fields of human rights, social inclusion, gender equality, and – as of more than 3 year now – in the field of medical innovations. I have been involved in these projects in different capacities: as a project manager, event organiser, and recently – communications manager.

How did you get into project management and communications?

I am very driven, curious, methodical and well-organised, all the while committed to contribute to a cause bigger than myself. The latter led me to the field of human rights projects and medical innovations. I care very much about social improvement and health, especially brain health. The qualities listed above are necessary for my job and I think naturally brought me to the field of project management and communications. The saying “follow your passion so it leads you to your profession” is true for me. I think it is important to do something you care about because of its ultimate goal but also be able to enjoy your daily tasks, because they match your skillset. That is the complete package to me!

What does it mean to be an effective communicator?

In my opinion, above everything else, being an effective communicator means getting the intended message across and making a real impact with it. This is a difficult task as there are many challenges at play. For instance, one often does not have sufficient information about the background of their target audience or lacks the resources to make their message really sticky which ensures it will make a difference.

Another challenge was brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Communicating primarily in a digital environment is restricting the affect one can have with their communication. The impact of body language, the connection one can build with their audience and the resulting trust that could be established are all lost to a big degree in the online setting. That is why being an effective communicator online requires a whole new set of skills – how to keep people engaged online while being concise but elaborate enough, for instance. Even getting people’s attention can be tricky, considering those end of day meetings between people with busy schedules.

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

I am a big fan of Asana – a project management tool, which helps keep track of all running tasks and processes for the various projects I manage. It provides a useful overview with many interactive options to add team members and distribute tasks among them, but also to share files and set deadlines, among others. This helps take the load of everyday tasks off your shoulders, and lets you focus on the bigger picture while working on on strategy and long-term plans.

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

For images I use Vecteezy, Shutterstock and Pixabay. They offer a big choice of imagery.

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

I enjoy the interactions with various groups of specialists – scientists, industry partners, program managers, patient organisations and patient representatives. It is very different to work with each group and very enriching as people value and approach things differently. I learn from them and that helps me make my communication output better as I understand what is important to each group and how they should be approached.

One of the challenges I encounter is to engage scientists with project communications especially in the times of COVID-19 when no project meetings could take place. It is difficult to build rapport with someone if you have not even met them and that helps with inciting people to inform you of upcoming publications, for instance. Once you have made a personal connection and explained to them how important it is to communicate about the project regularly and disseminate scientific results, then scientists are more willing to take the time and collaborate in creating content. I am, however, positive that the situation is changing and we are building on lessons learned in the past.

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

Being part of the NEURONET communication expert community has allowed me to expand my network and learn about other communication specialists’ work on projects and their approach to it. It is enriching to engage in an exchange of ideas, especially when it comes to the resolution of common communication challenges in our projects, such as the aforementioned. It is also nice to receive an affirmation about the success of certain activities I have shared with colleagues in NEURONET.

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

I am very result-oriented and like to keep the bigger picture in mind. That is to say, I enjoy very much collaborating with patient representatives on my projects because they are the primary beneficiaries of medical innovations. They need them the most and many of them need them fast.

Talking to patients and working with them is truly enriching. You learn about the real life of a person with a neurodegenerative condition such as Alzheimer’s disease, for instance, which brings your work into perspective. It is motivational as it brings you closer to the end goal – to help improve someone’s life.

Moreover, patients have so much to offer in these projects and should be actively approached for advice. For example, I like to work closely with them to make our communication pieces (e.g. articles, newsletters, videos) more accessible and attractive to people living with neurodegenerative conditions taking part in our studies and, of course, to the wider public. Patient representatives always challenge this work and bring it to a next level. This ultimately improves patient retention in our clinical studies which, in turn, ensures our research reaches its targets and makes a real impact!

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

Always try new approaches to things and explore your interests!