The first issue of 2018 features an InterView with Seogchan Kang, of Penn State, by Hao-Xun Chang, a student travel awardee and post-doc at Michigan State University. Also featured: our discussion of imposter syndrome continues with a piece by Dr. Dan Klessig about his experiences with the phenomenon. Read the new issue and join the discussion here in Interactions!
Student travel awardee Hao-Xun Chang, Michigan State University, interviews Seogchan Kang of Penn State. Read Kang's thoughts on mentorship, research, and more.
Daniel F. Klessig, of Cornell University and the Boyce Thompson Institute, recounts his own experiences with imposter syndrome over the course of his impressive career—and how he worked through the problem. Read the article now, and share your own experiences!
Editor-in-Chief: Dennis Halterman
Staff Editor: Michelle Bjerkness
|The deadline for submitting items to the next issue of Interactions is February 23, 2018.
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This InterView with Seogchan Kang, Professor of Plant Pathology at Penn State, was conducted by Hao-Xun Chang, a 2016 IS-MPMI student travel awardee, who is currently a post-doc at Michigan State University.
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Hao-Xun Chang (HXC): Thank you very much for accepting my invitation, and let me congratulate you on being a Fellow of The American Phytopathological Society. My first question is, Why did you choose to pursue an academic position in the U.S.?
Seogchan Kang (SK): Most of my college classmates in the chemistry department at Seoul National University came to the U.S. for their PhDs. It was like an unwritten requirement for us to follow. Since many of those several years senior to us became professors in Korea or in the U.S., I naively thought that I would also get a faculty position somewhere after earning my PhD. So, you can guess how badly I planned for my professional development! For example, I never tried to get teaching experience during my PhD. That experience was one of the reasons I developed a course in my department entitled Professional Development and Ethics. I want to help graduate students avoid career pitfalls and poor planning.
HXC: What resources did you rely on to establish your own research program?
SK: The most important resources were my mentors. Having their help played a big role in getting my current position, and they also served as role models. My PhD advisor, Bob Metzenberg at UW–Madison, helped me think very broadly by frequently bringing up his “crazy ideas” for lab discussion. They were about how to experimentally approach many unsolved problems in science. Barbara Valent at DuPont, my first post-doc supervisor, introduced me to plant pathology and showed me that good science cannot be rushed. John Hamer at Purdue, another post-doc advisor, had a knack for pitching even mundane data and ideas as if they were major breakthroughs. My colleagues and collaborators were also resources. I never took formal courses in plant pathology. Although I read many plant pathology-related papers in my work on rice blast disease at DuPont and Purdue, I don’t think I could have passed the departmental candidacy exam during the first few years in my job. Several “real” plant pathologists in the department generously shared their experiences and materials, which enabled me to study interesting problems without making too many silly mistakes. I also owe thanks to several long-time collaborators for allowing me to pursue major ventures. I have worked closely with one of them, Yong-Hwan Lee at Seoul National University, for 20 years.
HXC: What was your first research grant, and what can you share about getting it?
SK: It was a grant from USDA-NRI, a program that became USDA-AFRI. The proposal was about studying the genetic mechanism underpinning race variation in Magnaporthe oryzae, and it was based, in part, on a proposal I submitted to the same program when I was a post-doc. Although the first proposal was not chosen for support, the experience and the feedback from reviewers greatly helped me improve the next proposal. A call I received from the panel manager made me very happy!
HXC: What advice do you have for post-docs and graduate students who want to write competitive research and fellowship proposals?
SK: Given my recent batting record, I’m not sure if I can offer good advice! However, based on what I have learned from reviewing proposals from highly successful scientists, I can offer a few tips. Given the extremely competitive funding environment, your proposal should excite reviewers and must stand out among many good proposals. A good proposal can take several different forms. Examples include making an inquiry that will likely disrupt a major paradigm, building an essential community resource that is urgently needed, and controlling an emerging disease of global concern. Try to help reviewers help you. The 10% success rate does not mean that you have some chance of getting support if you submit 10 proposals. Poorly prepared proposals, no matter how many of them you submit, will not likely bring good outcomes. If you do not feel ready to submit a solid proposal by yourself, explore the possibility of participating in a collaborative project as a co-PI. (Of course, you should have something valuable to add to the project!) Collaborative projects also offer some valuable lessons that will help your professional growth. If you can solve important problems for local commodity groups, they may give you some funding. In some states, such commodity support can be as big as a federal grant. Although funding is critical, I should note that your curiosity, not the funding availability, should determine what you want to work on.
HXC: What is your ideal composition of laboratory personnel (post-docs, grad students, undergrads, technicians, etc.), and is this balance important?
SK: I do not think that there is a magic formula for composition. However, taking excellent people is essential for many reasons. Even though I have made a number of bad hiring decisions, I have survived and managed to explore several interesting projects, thanks to a few excellent students and post-docs. Collaborators that provided human resources and expertise that I did not have certainly helped, too. Recruiting the right people is especially critical for a new faculty, as you cannot spend as much time as you did as a post-doc in the lab and have to depend increasingly on others for research outputs. Considering how overinflated recommendation letters can be, you may consider recruiting people through someone you can trust. Anyone can walk on water during the coldest month of the year in Michigan. What you need to figure out is whether a person can do it in July!
HXC: Thank you very much, Dr. Kang. Do you have any other suggestions for post-docs who want to get faculty positions?
SK: Critically analyze your weaknesses and strengths early, so you can judiciously use the strengths to advance your career while eliminating the weaknesses or learning to minimize the damage they cause. Build and grow a network of supporters and collaborators. As I emphasized earlier, they can help you in many ways. Stay curious, so that you can frequently venture into exciting frontiers of science. An academic position is one of the very few jobs that pays you for doing what you enjoy.
HXC: Thank you very much.
Editor’s note: Below is a response to the article in the last issue on imposter syndrome, which was written by Michelle Marks and Katelyn Butler. This response was written by IS-MPMI Interactions Advisory Board member Dr. Dan Klessig. As you will learn from his response, imposter syndrome can affect anyone, regardless of his or her career achievements. I encourage you to continue the discussion of this topic by sharing comments after the original article or after this one. (You must log in to see and submit comments.) Or perhaps talk among yourselves in the lab, at a department seminar, or over a drink after hours. Thanks again to Michelle and Katelyn for initiating the conversation.
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By Dr. Dan Klessig, Boyce Thompson Institute and Member of the Interactions Advisory Board
Katelyn and Michelle:
You are correct, and you are not alone! Your article really hit home. I have dyslexia, which the British Dyslexia Association defines as “a difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling” and is characterized by “difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.”
From a very early age, I felt that something was not quite right. Despite being able to learn things rapidly in many areas, I was a terrible reader. Reading aloud was both embarrassing and horrifying, since I could not hide how poor a reader I really was.
Three events are particularly memorable. The first occurred while I was preparing my valedictory address for my high school graduation with the student guidance counselor. In his opening comments, he indicated how amazed he was that I had achieved a highly unusual perfect 4.0 average (this was before the days of grade inflation), despite my “modest” IQ score.
The second memorable event was my attempt to increase my reading speed during my senior year at the University of Wisconsin–Madison by enrolling in a speed-reading course. To obtain a baseline against which my progress/improvement could be measured, I had to take a reading exam. It consisted of reading a several-page article and then answering various questions to measure both my reading speed and comprehension. After the teacher analyzed my results, she asked what my GPA was. I replied that it was about 3.85, since I had received a few B’s. In astonishment she uttered, “Really? You read at only a fifth-grade level,” to which I replied, “That’s why I’m here.”
The third event was the discovery that I had a disability and it had a name: dyslexia. This happened purely by accident during a return trip to Boston from a Plant Molecular Biology Gordon Conference in New Hampshire with three other professors. The driver, who was a highly accomplished scientist and chair of his department, was discussing his dyslexia symptoms with the front-seat passenger. EUREKA! They were a near-identical match to mine. WOW! What a discovery. I finally knew what had been plaguing me for more than three decades.
Unfortunately, knowing what I had did not make it go away. I compensated for my dyslexia and kept it hidden by working tirelessly: three to four hours of homework each night during high school, relentless studying during college, 18-hour days during graduate school, and 80-hour work weeks as a professor, with both class lectures and seminars written and then more or less memorized. Yes, I succeeded, but I always wondered when I would be found out. When would they—my friends, my colleagues, the world—discover that I really was not that good, not that smart, just average at best—i.e., an IMPOSTER! I felt that while I had earned my successes in part by working harder than others, I had also been LUCKY. When would my luck run out? When would I be discovered?
Two periods during my career were particularly trying because of my dyslexia and the associated imposter syndrome—my “constant companion.” The first was during my tenure as a Marshall Scholar from 1971 to 1973, when I travelled to the United Kingdom to study in the newly formed Department of Molecular Biology at the University of Edinburgh. I was one of 24 students from the United States selected to study at the university of their choice in the U.K. as part of the nation’s symbolic repayment to the United States and its Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. I was surrounded by some of America’s “best and brightest.” (Justices Breyer and Gorsuch of the U.S. Supreme Court were Marshall Scholars.) How soon would they discover that this farm boy with dyslexia was an IMPOSTER, who did not belong among these intellectual elites?
The second period was while I served as president and CEO of the Boyce Thompson Institute. Re-invigorating the institute’s research portfolio—including developing a new program in molecular and chemical ecology with Tom Eisner and Jerry Meinwald and making room for and obtaining nongovernment funds for a cohort of new faculty, plus dealing with a diverse board of directors (in addition to directing my own research program)—stretched my work capacity to its very limits. After having open heart surgery and three bouts of pneumonia, I was actually relieved to have an excuse to step down and return just to doing science—before I potentially failed and/or was identified as an IMPOSTER!
The irony of my story, and perhaps the stories of others, is that success does not necessarily suppress the impostor syndrome. In fact, it can exacerbate it. Success often leads to new opportunities, which are associated with new challenges. These, in turn, can evoke fresh fears of being discovered. Even at age 69 and nearing the “dusk” of my career, my “constant companion” is still with me. Its presence is much diminished, however, and this is part of the reason that I am truly ENJOYING doing science more than at any other time during my 45-year career.
Upon sharing my story with a few trusted senior colleagues, several important points emerged. First, self-doubts and insecurities are not uncommon in our profession. Second, those doubts and insecurities may have diverse origins, with a disability such as dyslexia being just one. Other sources may include hypercritical childhood influences; negative societal expectations based on gender, ethnicity, and so on; and natural variations in the remarkable mix of intellectual talents that each person has. Third, despite our self-doubts, which may diminish but perhaps never fully disappear, we can thrive and contribute to science. Perhaps now more than ever, both science and society need us to do so with as much clarity, vigor, and rigor as possible.