Volunteering for SRUK/CERU


I joined SRUK/CERU in 2016 and I am still here, alive and kicking, co-chairing this year’s International Symposium SRUK/CERU! Clearly, the positive things of being part of this Society outweigh the negative ones; otherwise I would not still be here. Nevertheless, the journey has not been a bed of roses, and I am sure other people’s experiences have been different to mine and led them to different paths. This post is a recollection of my own personal journey, the joy and exciting moments I have lived, and the lessons I have learnt along the way.

It all started when a friend encouraged me to apply for an award that a Society she was part of had recently advertised: the first edition of the now well-established SRUK/CERU Emerging Talent Award. I did not get the award – I was not even close; the level was really high! While this is just a fun fact to remember, my main point is that I joined SRUK/CERU purely because of being interested in its award, and that is a totally fair reason to join this Society.

Shortly after joining SRUK/CERU, I discovered that they were organising a symposium in London just a couple of months later. So, I ended up registering to attend the symposium and presenting a poster. Then, I discovered there was an SRUK/CERU working group based in London! At that time, my partner was already in London – she is also the co-chair of this year’s symposium, by the way – and I had friends both at work and outside of work. However, meeting other people with somewhat common interests was rare, especially in a city as big and often as alienating as London can be. The SRUK/CERU London working group I met back then was a nice gang  – and it still is! -, and I immediately felt the urge to get more involved in the Society. I became an SRUK/CERU online manager and, shortly after that same year, the secretary of the SRUK/CERU London constituency. And, in case that was not being involved enough in the Society, I also joined the Organising Committee of the International Symposium SRUK/CERU in 2017. Once that year was over, I volunteered to join the SRUK/CERU Press Department and the newly formed SRUK/CERU Women Committee. As a side note, I was also volunteering back then for the Science Toy Award and for Native Scientist, other societies promoting scientific outreach amongst children that I met thanks to SRUK/CERU. In the meantime, I also got married. You might think I was crazy but, actually, this escalation of getting more and more involved in SRUK/CERU is pretty common among volunteers!

Those two first years were busy, to say the least. Nevertheless, I built an impressive CV thanks to the outreach activities I organised and other soft skills I gained on the way. I helped organise countless activities in London as part of the working group, I learnt how to write press releases, contributed to public engagement and professional development events… About time keeping! More importantly, I met a lot of people and a valuable community to lean on. Some of them are still friends, while, in other cases, life has brought us apart. But there is no way I would have gained such an amazing range of experiences without SRUK/CERU.

In 2018, I became general secretary of SRUK/CERU, and thus I entered into a totally different level of volunteering work. Being Secretary was the kind of activity that you do in the shadows. If you do it right, no one would even notice you are there as things run smoothly. If you do not do it right, SRUK/CERU (or part of it) falls apart and people start complaining. This appreciation was not mine, but from my predecessor in the position, and I still believe it is the ground truth. In the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee, you have real powers to drive change. It is not that you are free to do whatever you want – most certainly, you are not: you have responsibilities and are accountable for the wellbeing of the Society -, but you can put things into movement and implement new methodologies that will have an impact in the years to come, for good… or bad. You can really mess things up if you are not on top of things. Volunteering to be part of the Board of Directors or the Executive Committee is, by definition, volunteering. Once you get involved, however, you need to accept a certain level of commitment and deliver on that. You can learn many skills while in the position – that is what volunteering in SRUK/CERU is about, you learn new skills and step out of your comfort zone – but you need to be ready to invest time in it. 

Around this period of time, I started to feel burnout, not surprisingly. I left the SRUK/CERU Women Committee because, to be honest, I was not doing much – I was initially involved in some of their activities, but failed to really deliver on any of them due to the other commitments in the other volunteering positions I had in SRUK/CERU. I genuinely did not have the headspace to contribute to more activities. And, more or less, the same happened with my time as part of the SRUK/CERU Press Department. I was still organising local events in London, however. And that was fine, and almost soothing, because they were short-term activities that you could see happening in a short time from inception to delivery. And what was the worst that could happen? Not having enough people to help out with the event or attending the event? We did have to cancel a couple of events because of that – mainly during those hard COVID times – but well, such is life. Things do not always succeed.

In 2020, I finished my tenure as the SRUK/CERU Secretary, and so my involvement in all SRUK/CERU initiatives except for the local ones taking place in London. It was a relief, to be honest. While being the Secretary of the Society, I learnt an awful lot of things, from organisational strategy to managing expectations, even about the legal aspects of the formation of companies in the UK! All looked really good in my CV, and I have no doubt that such experience has made me a much better team leader in my current job. But it was exhausting, and I had to take some holidays from SRUK/CERU.

As I said, I am now co-chairing the International Symposium SRUK/CERU; and thus it was not a “goodbye”, rather a “see you later”. It has been an important break to take so that I could get a better perspective about what I want from SRUK/CERU now that I am older and more experienced. What is in this Society for me, now, and what am I willing to give in return?

Volunteering for SRUK/CERU is a journey, and every journey is different. What has been yours? What is still lying ahead of your collaboration with SRUK/CERU?

Figure 1: A collection of Diego’s memories while volunteering at SRUK/CERU.

By Diego Alonso Álvarez (@[email protected]), Research Software Engineer Team Lead, RCS-ICT, Imperial College London.