By Danve Castroverde
“The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.” ~ Confucius
The 2016 Plant Biotechnology for Health and Sustainability Symposium was held last Oct 21st and 22nd. This is part of the NIH-funded program spearheaded by Prof. Robert Last and has been providing career opportunities and novel training for MSU junior researchers in plant biotechnology and chemical engineering since 2014.
As a first-time attendee this year, I was impressed by the highly organized nature and cutting-edge impact of the event. We were able to hear from experts in various fields of plant biology research, leaders from the industry side and more personal stories from up-and-coming young scientists.
There were a myriad of lessons and material to take in, but I kept coming back to these two main themes as I pondered upon my experience and synthesized my thoughts in the days that followed:
Theme 1: Opportunities are out there. You just have to grab them.
As researchers, we are exposed to and must get used to failed experiments or rejected grant proposals. It is definitely very tempting to give up and just hang up the towel. Ultimately though – in science and in life – it is not only what we accomplish that defines who we are but also the adversities and obstacles that we overcome.
In her talk, Colleen Friel from Dr. Maren Friesen’s Lab (Department of Plant Biology) detailed her travel to Australia to do research at the Centre for Rhizobium Studies. She had the opportunity to connect with new collaborators in Perth and to witness the unique Australian agricultural system and research culture. All these became possible because of Colleen’s resourcefulness. She was initially rejected by NSF when she applied for travel funding but, instead of giving up, she looked for other opportunities. Eventually, she got financial support from MSU. Because of this, not only was she able to travel and do research in a different continent but she currently is in the process of publishing papers from her work there.
Speaking of more opportunities, Dr. Randy Olson, a bioinformatician from the University of Pennsylvania, outlined how he progressed from his humble “data tinkerer” beginnings to being labeled as a “data genius” by The Washington Post. He found his niche in science outreach before he even knew it by taking advantage of powerful online tools and resources to communicate his science effectively. He gave great tips on how to use Twitter, Reddit and blogs to reach your audience with the largest impact.
Theme 2: “Fit” within the work culture is a very important asset.
In the pre-lunch career panels, we had four guests from both academia and industry who talked about their personal career journeys and shared useful tips for those currently figuring out their career directions. Geoff Horst from Algal Scientific, Doug Allen from the Donald Danforth Center, Ailing Zhou from Syngenta, and Ryan Philippe from ManusBio all shared their precious time with us.
They came from different backgrounds and have different priorities, however, they all agreed on the magic word “fit.” Yes, whether one decides to pursue academic research or flip into industrial research, it is important to “fit into the work culture.” However, one cannot achieve this overnight. All the panelists stressed the importance of knowing our personal goals early on (“work with crops if you want to work in industry” according to Ailing) or learning effective communication and organizational skills (“distill your ideas effectively to both scientists and non-scientists alike” according to Ryan).
Although science can make us insular beings, fitting into the work culture will be enhanced greatly by working on our interpersonal and leadership skills. Networking with a diverse group of people is key to give us that extra edge. Our panelists gave instances of people landing positions more because of “who they knew” and not just “what they knew.” Having great collaborators and mentors will allow us to “pick the right references” for the job. Although references are the last items written in our CV, it can never be over-emphasized how significant they are.
Overall, I am very thankful to have the opportunity to attend this year’s PBHS Symposium. I learned a lot about cutting-edge science, but also gained broader understanding on how I can harness my capabilities to reach my goals. Paraphrasing what my graduate mentors used to tell me, “Science and life will always give you failures and difficulties, but it is up to you if you choose to deal with them or give up.” The former could help you succeed while the latter certainly will not. Staying true to Confucius’s wise words (which hold up today!), key steps to success are to grab those rare opportunities when presented to you and to work on how you can be the best fit into your desired work culture.