New publication highlights NMDC Ambassador Program

A new paper published today in Nature Microbiology, co-authored by CSCCE staff members Camille Santistevan and Lou Woodley, reports on the success of the National Microbiome Data Collaborative (NMDC) Ambassador Program. 

The success of this pilot cohort of NMDC Ambassadors highlights the outsized impact community champions programs can have in culture change initiatives that rely on a change in community norms – in this case, the definition and adoption of metadata standards to aid the reuse of microbiome data. In this blog post, we offer a high-level overview of the project, but we encourage you to read the new paper, which is available here

The National Microbiome Data Collaborative (NMDC)

NMDC was established in 2019 to address a specific need in the microbiome research community. Scientists were becoming increasingly frustrated by how hard it was to locate and reuse published microbiome datasets, in large part due to a lack of related metadata. Metadata is “data about data,” including when and where a sample was collected. Without it, simple searches for data related to geographical location or time of year would return incomplete results. 

NMDC’s plan for addressing this roadblock to research was to introduce and socialize metadata standards in order to make microbiome data FAIR: Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable. 

Creating the NMDC Ambassador Program

As with any effort to change entrenched norms, community engagement is central to NMDC’s strategy. Initially overseen by Elisha Wood-Charlson, an alumna of our Community Engagement Fellowship Program, NMDC engaged CSCCE early in the community engagement strategy development process. From these early conversations, the concept of a champions program emerged as a core mechanism for reaching out and engaging the people who collect microbiome data: early career researchers (aka, graduate students, postdocs, and early career academics within 10 years of finishing their PhDs).

The program was designed to train a small cohort of Ambassadors to become experts in metadata standards while also offering guidance on community management best practices and workshop organization. With this training, Ambassadors were then tasked with creating and hosting two workshops each over the course of a year. The original focus was on creating training sessions that could be delivered in-person at national conferences and workshops, but with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, things had to change. 

So, the inaugural cohort of 12 Ambassadors received virtual instruction from CSCCE and NMDC staff, particularly former program coordinator Pajau Vangay, and created workshops that could be delivered via Zoom using supplementary tools (e.g., Google docs and sheets, Mural, and Padlet) as needed. The program timeline was also extended to allow for this shift. 

How it went

It was uncertain whether the pivot from in-person to online workshops and training sessions would still achieve an impact. But, the 23 online workshops ultimately delivered by the Ambassadors reached more than 800 researchers across the USA. Furthermore, Ambassadors reported increased visibility in their roles as Ambassadors, and increased confidence as a result of training they received. This really highlights the impact that a small group of trained community champions can have on a community’s mission – and on the champions themselves. 

As the program drew to a close, we worked with Pajau to analyze the outcomes of the program in more detail. We looked at exit survey data from the events the Ambassadors hosted to assess how they had been received, and conducted exit interviews with the outgoing Ambassadors. From this work, we were able to make concrete recommendations to NMDC so that they could refine the program, and we’re pleased to report that a second cohort will start later this year, also receiving training from CSCCE. 

Work with us

If you are considering creating a champions program for your community, let us know! We can work with you on program design, deliver custom training for your champions, and support the program evaluation process. Please send any inquiries to


Kelliher, J.M., Rudolph, M., Vangay, P. et al. Cohort-based learning for microbiome research community standards. Nat Microbiol (2023).