We’re taking time to get to know the members of the GSA’s Early Career Scientist Committees. Join us to learn more about our early career scientist advocates.

Walid Mawass

Community and Membership Engagement Subcommittee

University of Arizona

Research Interest:

I am generally interested in evolutionary genetics. Specifically, my research centers on genetic variation and how it is shaped by evolutionary forces. The type of genetic variation I study is the complex type that underlies quantitative phenotypic traits, such as morphological, life-history, and behavioral. I use statistical and computational tools to elucidate how natural selection—and other evolutionary mechanisms—acts on this variation, leading to phenotypic adaptive change. Simultaneously, I use theoretical models to understand how mutational input maintains the complex genetic variation that allows for adaptive change to occur in the first place. I am also interested in processes arising from different phenomena (e.g., indirect genetic effects, genotype-environment interactions, etc.) that can modulate genetic variation, evolutionary potential, and the response to selection in natural populations.

As a PhD-trained scientist, you have many career options. What interests you the most?

Foremost, I am interested in generating knowledge to better the human condition. As a PhD-trained scientist (and with the current nature of the scientific enterprise), I know that I must specialize in specific questions. To counter this situation, I must contextualize the answers I extract using the scientific method around furthering our collective understanding of the natural world. I was drawn from an early age to episteme (knowledge or understanding). First, I felt a craving for it, wanting to consume it and let it construct my mental models of the world. Its effect was not slight. It helped build my value and belief system that I still use when interacting with the world. Then, I began wanting to create, generate, and engender knowledge. But at that point, I was not interested in doing so for my own sake. Instead, I wanted to generate knowledge for those around me and those who would come after me.

I am attracted to the academic environment because of its pedagogic and scholarly aspects. I enjoy thinking up questions to answer using the tools and methods I was trained for. I’ve realized that having others to share my ideas with is invaluable. I enjoy having them deconstruct and reconstruct my ideas again with me while adding their own. That is why I have so far felt suited to the academic environment.

My approach toward pedagogy also suits the academic milieu. I find immeasurable value in mentoring future students who want to learn new skills or develop their attributes to become researchers or industrious scientists. But, given my lack of direct experience in the industrial world where valuable research happens, I am wise to my bias toward the academic field. I am not preferring one over the other or purporting that one is better than the other. Instead, I am sharing that, through self-understanding and reflections on my attributes and preferences, being an academic who focuses on research while creating an environment of pedagogic and professional development is the career path where I can thrive.

In addition to your research, how do you want to advance the scientific enterprise?

First, it is fair to say that it took me a while to truly understand the scientific enterprise and all its parts. As with any human-driven enterprise, regardless of its many merits, the scientific endeavor is not without faults. Its merits are the most visible ones, the most impactful at all levels of social organization. Wanting to advance these merits is a given—or at least, should be. Of course, individually, as scientists, we can decide to focus on a few of the merits that should be continuously elevated and improved upon. I consider collaboration within the scientific enterprise a valuable element of its success. I think of the collaborative lines between different scientists as the supply chains that keep any economy afloat and running. Whether it is a collaboration between two (or more) researchers an office or a few continents apart, the connection formed always yields a net return higher than if the work were independent. That return can take any shape—intellectual, methodological, theoretical, or educational. With my work and philosophy, I aim to make collaboration an essential element. In terms of work, collaboration can mean having a colleague or peer look over the logic of your ideas, check the quality and clarity of the language, or assess the feasibility of the work. The outcome will always bring a net positive to my development. Philosophically, I assume that the human condition and societal progress can never materialize without implicit or explicit collaboration and cooperation between individuals. Allowing this view on life to guide me through my choices and actions within the scientific enterprise, I hope to strengthen the scientific community by fostering connections.

The scientific community is composed of individuals with diverse backgrounds and personalities. Some will choose to run their labs and groups differently than others. Academics should explore different approaches to productivity, management, and creativity within varied environments. Consequently, with a predefined set of goals, the appropriate strategies can be selected and spread across the community. With this context in mind, I believe the goals matter the most in this process. These goals can change across different cultures and institutions. Regardless, there should be universal goals that everyone can agree on. A few I want to advance within the scientific enterprise include empathy, honesty, inclusivity, equity, and accountability. These values represent crucial elements of human enterprise, and as such, it should also be that the scientific enterprise cannot operate without its human constituents. I aim to create an environment built on these values while disseminating them across the entire community.

As a leader within the Genetics Society of America, what do you hope to accomplish?

I joined GSA to exercise and develop my leadership skills. That is achievable through time spent making decisions, communicating efficiently with members, and completing a planned project. Since I am also the co-chair of my subcommittee, I have additional work assignments. The responsibilities of this position are crucial to maintaining the proper functioning of the subcommittee. I only started in this role at the beginning of this year, but from the start, I aimed to exercise my responsibility with the utmost care and empathy toward the members of my subcommittee. First, these members come from different backgrounds and countries, and they are all volunteering their time to advance the subcommittee’s mission, elevate the success of ECLP, and promote the mission of GSA. With this in mind, one of my goals is to support my fellow members, providing them with the aid they might need when it comes to their responsibilities or their inability to achieve their goals due to personal or professional reasons. Personally, it is vital to show my members and the members of GSA that leadership, at the level of a subcommittee, can be exercised with empathy and care while delivering project successes and membership engagement. Also, I make sure to communicate to my fellow members that I hold myself accountable for any failures that follow from my own decisions or shortcomings. At the same time, I expect my colleagues to hold me liable and push me to improve in my role. In other words, a positive and constructive feedback relationship is established between members and leveraged to achieve the aims established at the beginning of the year.

I also hope to elevate the value of society groups, such as GSA. These professional organizations hold a valuable role in the professional development of researchers, whether their career is in academia or industry. I have felt the impact of such organizations on my career development. For this reason, I wanted to play a chief yet time-limited role in an association such as GSA to promote its internal machinery to achieve valuable external success. One long-term goal would be to make it transparent to young scientists and geneticists that there is immeasurable value in joining a group such as GSA. The salient point of this goal is to show that taking up a role involving collaboration, commitment, and engagement is an indispensable step toward professional development. Coincidentally, this goal overlaps with the mission of my subcommittee, thereby validating my decision to join it and work toward implementing its mission in practice.

Previous leadership experience

During my tenure in Canada for my PhD program at the Université de Québec à Trois-Rivières, I was part of the student association of my department, serving as Chair of Scientific Events for two years. I organized seminars and workshops for the benefit of the students of our department. The seminars carried varying themes, and some involved inviting newly-arrived faculty members to present their work and lab to the students. The goal was to expose our students to different research and offer them opportunities to work with professors with aligning research interests. Another seminar invited leaders from industry to present opportunities and career paths outside of academia. Likewise, the workshops helped students gain skills in building their CV or resume, focusing on their mental health, and, for international students, navigating bureaucratic hurdles.

Currently, I’ve been successfully leading and maintaining a theoretical population genetics study group for undergraduate and graduate students of the EEB department at the University of Arizona. Our attendance has been consistent and has increased for the current semester. Though this appointment is in no way an official leadership position, it takes leadership skills to organize and handle logistics, reach out to past and prospective members, and lead the instruction of the weekly sessions. This experience has filled me with pride, and I aim to continue organizing workshops, seminars, and events like this at every institution I work at to directly benefit students and help with their development.

Graduate student and postdoctoral leaders from the Early Career Scientist Committees of the GSA.

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