The isolation imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic brought to light how important social connection is for a person’s well-being. Recognizing the significance of connection, a group of UW Bioengineering students, at the suggestion of faculty, created Coffee Chats to provide informal networking and mentoring opportunities for students, faculty and staff.

Two of the founding members of Coffee Chats, Bioengineering Ph.D. student Trey Pichon and faculty liaison Azadeh Yazdan, professor of bioengineering and electrical and computer engineering, shared their thoughts about Coffee Chats.

We came up with the idea of Coffee Chats to provide a low-key environment where people across all levels of the department – faculty, staff, grad students, post-docs and undergrad students – could come together over food. – Trey Pichon

Trey Pichon

Trey Pichon, UW BioE Ph.D. student

Why Coffee Chats?

Yazdan and other faculty shared with Pichon and fellow founding member, Ciana López, UW BioE Ph.D. student who founded the Biomedical Diversity Community (BDC), that the BioE department needed more opportunities for students to interact informally. “We identified that everyone in the department is thirsty for more connection for people to feel more welcomed and included,” Yazdan said. “So, we wanted to offer opportunities for people to network and have mentorship so that when they see someone in the hallways, they feel comfortable saying ‘hi.’”

With that goal in mind, López and Pichon created a subcommittee of the BioE Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) committee called Building BioE Community. Through conversations with faculty and focus groups they conducted, the two learned that formal mentoring programs weren’t successful. Studies showed the department needed opportunities for faculty to be in touch with students more often, especially students from underrepresented backgrounds.

The idea for Coffee Chats came from a few sources. The initial concept came from discussions in a book club that Pichon was leading on the topic of mentorship.  Additionally, Pichon drew inspiration from his time in industry at a company that fostered a strong culture of community and mentorship. This helped ignite his passion for creating a similar culture at the UW. “We came up with the idea of Coffee Chats to provide a low-key environment where people across all levels of the department – faculty, staff, grad students, post-docs and undergrad students – could come together over food,” Pichon said.

What are Coffee Chats?

Coffee Chats started in October of 2021 and has taken place once a month. Originally located in the Vista Café in the Foege building, it recently expanded to a second location at South Lake Union.

There are three goals for Coffee Chats. To build community by fostering connections within the department. To provide opportunities for informal mentoring between students, post-docs, faculty and staff. And to present topics not normally discussed in classes. Topics have included handling chronic stress, self-reflection, the power of vulnerability and navigating uncertainty in research.

Each event has a different host who introduces the discussion topic for the first half of the meeting. The host can be a student, faculty or staff member. The committee works with the host to make sure the topic is of interest to the entire BioE community. The hosts are asked to supply resources for the attendees including articles, TED Talks, podcasts and more to help them prepare for the meeting. The second half of the event includes an activity such as volleyball, Pictionary, charades or Bocce Ball.

Community collaboration

Many individuals and UW Registered Student Organizations (RSO) helped make Coffee Chats successful. “Tapping into RSOs, faculty, and staff in our department was key to getting people from the community to attend the chats,” Pichon said. Coffee Chats is supported by the JEDI Building BioE Community subcommittee and many students from the group as well as faculty and staff have helped organize the events. Additionally, the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) RSO has provided help with advertising and reaching undergrads. The Bioengineering Industry Engagement (BioEngage) organization assisted with scheduling the events.

Several BioE students have contributed their time to the events including BioE Ph.D. student Veronica Porubsky, undergrad Joey Liang and former undergrads William Sham and Kelly Yeh.

Azadeh Yazdan standing near brick columns

Azadeh Yazdan, UW assistant professor of bioengineering and of electrical and computer engineering

I feel more integrated in the department because I’m seeing my colleagues, students and staff at every level. – Azadeh Yazdan

The future of Coffee Chats

Pichon and Yazdan want to make sure that Coffee Chats are sustainable for years to come. Yazdan shared that the events have been helpful for getting to know the community better. “I feel more integrated in the department because I’m seeing my colleagues, students and staff at every level.”

To ensure Coffee Chats evolve with the community’s needs, the organizing committee conducted regular surveys throughout the year to gather feedback about the events. “The feedback we received from the participants showed it was very successful,” Pichon said. “In addition to meeting the stated goals, Coffee Chats also provided unexpected benefits by providing a dedicated time for the community to come together and put mind space toward brainstorming ways to build a stronger community.”

Yazdan added, “Because these events were successful, we have a new department committee that will put the events together that help with building community, bringing people together and creating an inclusive environment.”

Pichon is optimistic that Coffee Chats will continue to support students in their UW journey. “My hope is that after Ciana and I leave, we can come back and attend Coffee Chats ourselves. [And that] we’ve created a mold and template that people can replicate for other events,” Pichon said.

Yazdan and Pichon would love to hear any feedback or suggestions for Coffee Chats from the UW community. If you have thoughts or questions about the events, please submit them here.

Yazdan is the Washington Research Foundation Innovation Assistant Professor of Neuroengineering and recipient of the 2022 Junior Faculty Award from the UW College of Engineering. Pichon is developing new drug delivery technologies in Professor Suzie Pun’s lab and was named to the 2020 Husky 100 in recognition of his leadership, inclusion, innovation, and contributions to the UW community.  

Written by Arden Clise