Questions from a career coach.

I got into a Twitter discussion with @FromPhDtoLife and decided to answer them here. They’re certainly not the most thought out answers, just stream of conscious thinking on the whole.

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What lies at the core of my academic work?

I haven’t actually taken a lot of time out to really think about this, amazingly. In the world of science these days, the message is go, go, go. Don’t think about what you’re doing…vision/big picture is the PI’s job! Getting space to think about these things is something I’m starting to do. What is it I want to put out into the world? Note, this won’t be an elevator pitch length thing. It’ll probably be longer.

At the core of my academic work currently, it’s trying to untangle the mess of interactions that are plant hormones. They’re a set of small molecules that are effectors of responses to various stimuli (be they environmental or developmental). Just how an individual plant cell ‘reads’ it’s hormone environment is quite clear. I don’t think tools exist yet to monitor single plant cells and their hormone levels to determine what a plant does when one or more is modified in terms of gene regulation responses, protein-protein interactions and other cellular processes (like building a new cell wall). What is the minimal hormone change that can cause a response? When and how are some hormones cooperative while at other times those same hormones are antagonistic? Life is about gradients and hormone levels may operate in just that way in a developmental context. At it’s most broad, those are the questions I ask. Practically speaking, my ambition would be a get away from the basic and determine how other plants out in nature use plant hormones to govern their growth and development (all plants may have the same complement of hormones, but their specific roles may differ greatly from species to species). Not much is known about hormone responses in commercially important crops such as coffee, for instance (more is known in grasses like corn and rice).

What’s true for me that’s not necessarily true for others?

I know a lot about what doesn’t work in terms of learning to do effective science in the lab, or at least the mental habits that lead to the best learning, doing and fitting into the culture of science. I know about dealing with perfectionism, impostor syndrome and depression, three rampant contagions within Ph.D. programs and academia that prevent scientists from living up to their full potential. It costs the system money to have people within it struggling, often in silence, with these problems (if only because it can take longer to finish a project!). I’ve been learning to tackle these problems and have had at least some success and I feel I’m learning a lot of new things again and really pushing myself to take some calculated risks in my life again even though in science, we’re very much in a non-risk taking moment; so it can be hard. So there’s those things. I don’t know if there’s a realm of science policy that let’s you dive into scientific cultures and try various interventions amongst Ph.D. students, but those are programs I would love to be a part of. It would tap into my interest in science, education as well as resiliency/sustainability (of nature sure, but also of any worthwhile enterprise, science certainly qualifies as that in my book).

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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