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Boyce Thompson Institute

Boyce Thompson Institute Builds Community while Exploring Scientific Frontiers

For nearly a century, the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) has been exploring scientific frontiers in order to improve agriculture, protect the environment, and enhance human health. With staff hailing from 40 different countries, BTI supports a large and diverse team of brilliant minds.

For a talented team working at the complex intersection between scientific discovery and practical application, it’s essential to have a cohesive mission and an environment that fosters communication, collaboration, and community.

We recently caught up with Aaron Callahan, BTI’s Director of IT and Communications, to learn how he and his colleagues work toward their indispensable mission, together.

A Monumental Mission

BTI’s mission, “to advance and communicate scientific discovery in plant biology to improve agriculture, protect the environment, and enhance human health,” permeates throughout the organization. No matter their role, everyone at BTI knows their work has an impact on that mission.

“I work in IT and Communications,” Callahan explained. “Even though I’m not doing the research hands-on, I see the broader impact of my contribution. BTI’s work directly influences food security and sustainability in places around the world where small farmers struggle with things like drought, or disease. I love knowing that the part I play contributes to that much bigger picture.”

Knowing the results of their work can have a direct and transformative effect on food security for entire communities motivates the staff at BTI. Callahan elaborated further on the importance of having a meaningful mission for everyone to rally behind.

“We have the opportunity to be at the forefront of scientific research, and the work we do contributes to the intersection between discovery and application.

That mission sets a high bar, and it keeps us aligned and pushing toward the shared goal of harnessing scientific discoveries to change the world. For that sort of endeavor, you can’t just have one superstar—it truly has to be a team effort.”

“We have the opportunity to be at the forefront of scientific research, and the work we do contributes to the intersection between discovery and application."

While having a meaningful mission is important, it’s especially powerful when the myriad outcomes of that mission are visible. Seeing the worldwide impact BTI’s research has provides constant reinforcement for the team.

“We’re focused on translational work—taking lab research and actually getting it into the field. After all, lab research means nothing to a small farmer unless they can do something with it. The visible impact of that hands-on implementation of that research helps continually reinforce our mission.”

That impact isn’t even limited to work being done by BTI itself. In addition to its own work developing and applying new technologies, BTI proliferates its impact through a successful startup incubator program.

“We’ve had the opportunity to incubate several startups that are working on implementing the technologies that BTI scientists developed. Based on the success of that initial effort, we were recently given a million-dollar donation by one of our board members to even further increase the impact of our translational science program and help take those critical lab discoveries out into the real world.”

"I love knowing that the part I play contributes to that much bigger picture."

A Legacy of Progress

BTI will celebrate a century in operation in 2024. And while its contributions to scientific progress throughout those nearly hundred years are numerous, BTI was also leading the way toward social progress as well.

“Looking back, even during the early and mid-20th Century, at a time when women scientists were often marginalized, BTI had more women in prominent roles than many other research institutions. We love to celebrate that,” Callahan said. “A fun fact: many of our computational servers that support this body of research are named after women scientists across different generations.”

Throughout nearly a century of scientific research and discoveries, BTI’s core focus has been steadfast, even if some details have changed.

“It’s remarkable to think about—the focus over almost a hundred years has largely remained the same: driving forward the science behind sustainable agriculture, food security, and over the past few decades, human health. We’re known for our plant research, but it’s also being translated to solutions for human health as well, and it’s really amazing to see the breadth of impact our research has.”

Although a hundred years of progress is already a remarkable legacy, the scope of BTI’s influence reaches beyond into the future, as Callahan explains.

“Another part of our mission, which has become part of our legacy, is training the next generation of great scientists. Over the past century, hundreds of researchers have called BTI home. These talented alumni have gone on from their work at BTI to start their own incredible journeys of scientific discovery, and the results of their work reverberate worldwide.”

Connecting a Vibrant Community

BTI’s Scientists and support staff represent 40 countries around the world. While a workforce this diverse may present some unique challenges, the team revels in the opportunity to bring so many perspectives together.

“It’s one of the things that drew me to BTI,” Callahan recalled.

“Just walking down the halls, I might pass 12 coworkers who call 12 different countries home. It’s incredible how science unites us. And while the work we do transcends international and cultural borders, we love to celebrate the things that make us all unique. It’s fun to get so many opportunities to experience different cultures, whether it’s learning a tradition, a language, or maybe trying a food you might never have had before.”

“Just walking down the halls, I might pass 12 coworkers who call 12 different countries home. It’s incredible how science unites us."

That diversity provides continuous learning and growth opportunities for the staff, but also for the organization as a whole, as Callahan explained:.

“With so many people from different parts of the world working together, cultural awareness and sensitivity are paramount. Because of the diversity represented at BTI, there’s an awareness of how we communicate, not just internally, but also how we communicate our mission and vision to the global community.”

In order to support clear communication and provide this vibrant, forward-thinking community with a space to come together and collaborate, Callahan and his team knew they needed a reliable home base.

“When I came aboard, one of the first needs I identified and addressed was the lack of a central place to house our internal resources—they were distributed all over the place.

I started by cobbling together a Wordpress-based intranet, but it had limitations. Staff could consume information (when they could find it), but they weren’t empowered to share. Eventually, we reached a point where this solution was holding us back.”

This realization set Callahan on a journey to find a solution that could meet the evolving needs of his organization. He didn’t just happen across that solution right away. After exploring nearly a dozen other options, Callahan landed firmly on Haystack as the platform that would fit his team best.

After a successful implementation, Haystack received a warm reception from colleagues across BTI. Areas that had been challenging for the staff in the past were transformed to sources of delight.

“Since adopting Haystack, one of the biggest pieces of feedback I’ve received from my colleagues is just how enjoyable it is to use,” Callahan explained. “They love that they can just launch it and they’re in. There are no passwords to remember or change, and the UI is so clean—it just lowers the barrier to entry for everyone. While researching intranet platforms, ease of use was one of the key factors I was looking for. Without that, you’ll never have high adoption or engagement rates.”

"There are no passwords to remember or change, and the UI is so clean—it just lowers the barrier to entry for everyone."

While having a simple login process and intuitive features are crucial for platform engagement, Callahan was quick to highlight the importance of a platform’s impact on workflows.

“People love being able to quickly find what they need. Typically, with things like news or frequently used links, it’s already front and center on the dashboard. But even when it’s not right there, the universal search finds it. It’s like magic.”

In addition to the general user experience, Callahan was able to overhaul their primary mode of communication, much to everyone’s relief and delight.

“Before Haystack, the primary channel of communication was email. It was far from efficient, and a huge pain point for us. A mass email would go out, and it would land in everyone’s inbox, whether they were the target audience or not.

With Haystack’s group feature, we finally have a tool where we can reach relevant audiences, making sure information gets to the right people at the right time, so they can use and interact with it. That also means less emails in everyone’s inbox!”

Transforming the experience for company-wide announcements, and getting crucial information to the right people at the right time is already a major achievement. However, as Callahan explained, that’s just one part of the story.

“Now we have a two-way channel to communicate instead of just consuming information.

One of my highest priorities was finding a platform that made creating content simple, and that’s what Haystack brings in spades. Whether it’s creating a post, or page, or group, it’s not just easy, you also have that hidden power with slash commands. They don’t clutter up the interface, but they give you so many options.

I love that Unsplash is integrated automatically, enabling us to easily find relevant images without Googling around. It makes people confident to come in on their own without looping in IT, without looping in Comms for help, and it looks good! You don’t need design skills, you don’t need to be a web developer—if you can create a word doc, you can create great-looking content in Haystack.”

"You don’t need design skills, you don’t need to be a web developer—if you can create a word doc, you can create great-looking content in Haystack."

Along with that omnidirectional, multi-channel communication came great opportunities to reinforce the sense of community that unites the BTI team, something Callahan’s colleagues in HR were especially excited for.

“Haystack empowers us to celebrate each other for the small wins, celebrate anniversaries and birthdays, share photos of pets and kids, find a group of like-minded people—those kinds of things give us a shared sense of belonging. We really have fun with it, too. The emojis, the GIFs, the shoutouts—we enjoy all those things.

It’s also a way to recognize the ways our community pulls together. For instance, one of our labs recently flooded when a water pipe broke. After the chaos was contained, the outpouring of support through Haystack was inspirational.”

With staff working across different labs, providing reliable access to people, resources, and organizational knowledge on the go was also a key factor in Callahan’s search. “The mobile app is a winner,” he said. “We also love that Haystack is continuously adding features, especially in response to customer feedback.”

The BTI team continues to thrive with their new home base, exploring the platform and sharing feedback as their needs evolve.

Tips and Advice for Building an Exceptional Experience

After dedicating significant effort toward building a digital employee experience that not only supports BTI’s workflows, but also helps keep them connected, Callahan had some key takeaways he was willing to share.

“If you’re still in the ‘looking’ stage, try some tools out to get a sense for their capabilities, and also a feel for how well they fit your culture.

It took us too long to address the limitations of the handful of communication tools we’d cobbled together in the past.

Don’t try hammering a nail with a paintbrush. You need the right tools to create a single source of truth and an interactive virtual office. DIY and open-source tools can only get you so far. Investing in a robust platform like Haystack is the way to go.”

Building together

We’re thrilled to get to work with teams like Boyce Thompson Institute. Knowing our work can have even a small impact on such an important mission inspires everyone on the Haystack team. The feedback and experiences they share help us to build a fittingly cutting-edge platform for pioneering teams.

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