Archives

Member Commentary

IS-MPMI > COMMUNITY > Interactions > Categories
Sep 16
The MPMI Guide to Writing a Successful Research Paper

Juan S. Ramirez P.

Juan is an assistant feature editor for the MPMI journal and is currently a postdoc at the Centre of Microbial and Plant Genetics–Plant Fungi Interactions at KU Leuven in Belgium.

In a work environment ruled by the "publish or perish" principle, researchers are constantly looking to publish more research and in more prestigious journals. However, throughout our scientific careers, we are all chased by the ghost of journal rejection, which sometimes behaves unpredictably. Even though some scientists may argue there is a "luck" component inherent in the publication process, it is undeniable that preparing a good manuscript, both in style and content, for submission is a scientist's best ally to escape being haunted by this ghost.

Prompted by Jeanne M. Harris, editor-in-chief of MPMI, the senior editors of the journal reflected on their tips for successfully writing a good scientific paper and getting it accepted in a desirable journal. Here, we discuss some of the points we consider fundamental for writing an outstanding submission.​

You Need to Know What You Want to Tell and Find the Best Way to Do It

A research paper, like any other article, needs to have a main message. Thus, it might be helpful to ask yourself, "What is the message I want to convey?" Sometimes this question may be challenging to answer; nonetheless, it is important to know the answer before you start writing your manuscript since it will become the lighthouse that guides you—and the reader—through the sea of data and information that will make up your paper.

Once you identify the main idea, you need to create a narrative that guides the reader through a coherent and concise story. One useful way to construct this path is to ask an initial biological question, which in many cases is the driving question that motivated the study. You will then answer this initial question by describing a set of experiments, with results represented in figures. From these results, you can draw some conclusions, but new questions will consequently arise. Thus, these questions may serve as the connectors between the different figures, which at the same time represent their answers. Following this order, you will end up with an organized set of questions and figures. This will serve as the backbone of your paper, which you can write in a straightforward manner following the order you previously established.

In addition to presenting a great story and interesting results, each component of your research article should excel by itself. From the abstract to the references to the cover letter, no detail should be neglected.

The Abstract

The abstract is your first opportunity to capture the attention of the editor and reviewers, so do not miss it. A clear, logical abstract that highlights the relevance and scope of your research paper is vital—it will keep the reader interested in your work and get the reader to engage with its motivation. One useful approach is to write the abstract at the end of the manuscript. This way, the most relevant ideas, results, and conclusions can be included in the abstract. Even though it is important to highlight the main findings of your work, avoid overselling your results because it will compromise your credibility (this applies to the whole manuscript).

More and more scientific journals are requesting a graphical abstract be included as part of their research papers. Graphical abstracts need to be simple and informative enough for the reader to quickly understand the article's main message. They are especially useful when authors propose a model for a specific biological process and are less useful for more complicated articles. Since some journals do not include graphical abstracts, it may be helpful to include a model summarizing the main findings of the article as the last figure and include it in the discussion. This will help the reader follow your reasoning and understand how all the results fit together in a biological context. When preparing a graphical abstract or model, it is important that the graphic is clear and aesthetically attractive.

The Introduction

A good introduction is informative enough to provide nonexpert readers with all the information they need to understand a paper. However, you should avoid giving too many unnecessary details and keep the introduction concise and simple. Consider organizing the information from most general to most specific and be sure that the references you provide are relevant and updated. Finally, do not give in to the temptation to provide too many details concerning the results and conclusions from your work. You will have enough space for those details in the following sections.

The Results Carry the "Essence" of Your Paper

Like the rest of the paper, the results section should be built around the figures. Thus, both the figures and their corresponding captions must be clear, informative, and aesthetically attractive. Ideally, each figure should address a different question. To test this, draft a one-sentence title to summarize the main conclusion that can be drawn from each figure. If this process is easy, this indicates that every figure is necessary and addresses a different point. In contrast, if you have trouble concisely summarizing a figure, this may suggest it is necessary to split it into several figures and simplify the message for each resulting figure.

The data shown in figures should be consistent with the text. Bear in mind that a reviewer who has trouble understanding and interpreting your data is an unhappy reviewer who is less likely to agree with your conclusions and more prone to advise a rejection or give negative feedback. To increase the accessibility of your manuscript, briefly explain the reasoning behind the chosen techniques and experiments throughout the results section. This will allow the reader to follow the logic of the study. Furthermore, to avoid problems with the clarity of your message, ask some of your lab members or colleagues and, ideally, someone working in a related yet different field to read your manuscript and give their input. Readers outside the topic area who can provide fresh eyes may be able to spot inconsistencies that have become invisible to you. Additionally, if you doubt your language skills, ask a native English speaker or someone with high proficiency in the language to check the grammar and style of your text.

Clear Methods Make a Clear Paper

In the methods section be as precise as possible in describing the methodology, the number of measurements and replicates you performed, and the statistical tests you used. The methodology should be described in enough detail to allow the reader to reproduce your experiments without doubts about the procedure. This will also increase the reviewers' confidence in the presented results. It may be helpful to briefly explain why you chose a particular method or carried out an analysis in a specific way. This can significantly contribute to making the paper more accessible to reviewers and readers.

Your Submission Is More Than a Manuscript

Your manuscript is finished, your figures are neat, and you are ready to submit. However, when you log in to your favorite journal, you may realize that there are many empty spaces to fill and information to be provided. Oh, and you also need a cover letter (which most likely you have not written yet)!

Many of us have experienced the latter discouraging scenario, and some proceed with the most intuitive and time-saving option: copying the abstract or some phrases of the paper into the cover letter. While it is true that a good abstract should contain much of the information supporting why your paper is valuable and should be published, a misused cover letter is a missed opportunity. The cover letter is the space where authors can highlight the relevance and pertinence of their study more informally and subtly. Since the content of the letter will not be published, it allows some extra freedom for convincing the editor of the novelty of the research, how it fits into the state-of-the-art of the field of study, and how it contributes to its advance. Use it wisely!

Last, but not least, it may be wise to provide the editor with the names of suggested reviewers. This will save the editor time and, in general, speed up the whole review process. Bear in mind that these suggested reviewers should not be scientists with whom you have coauthored papers or grants or have existing collaborations to allow the review process to be as objective as possible. Additionally, it is wise to pick reviewers who are specialists in your paper's research topic, so they can potentially increase its quality with their input.

Sep 16
IS-MPMI Joins ASPB and Partners in $2 Million NSF Grant to Advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Plant Sciences

Mary Williams and Crispin Taylor
Graphics designed by Siobhan Braybrook
Edited by Dennis Halterman

We are excited to announce that the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), along with partners that include IS-MPMI, has been awarded a five-year grant through the National Science Foundation LEAPS (LEAding cultural change through Professional Societies of biology) program. As the lead organization, ASPB has the privilege of coordinating the development of a Research Coordination Network (RCN) in partnership with other plant science organizations and organizations that serve marginalized scientists. Interactions EIC Dennis Halterman and IS-MPMI President-Elect Roger Innes will represent IS-MPMI on the steering committee for the project.

The project, named ROOT & SHOOT (Rooting Out Oppression Together and SHaring Our Outcomes Transparently), will provide resources, training, opportunities, and structures aimed at seeding and cultivating cultural change toward an inclusive, equitable, scientific future for our discipline. The goal of an NSF LEAPS RCN is to catalyze cultural change, and as such, we aim to include more partners as the project progresses and openly share our ongoing work and all resources we develop.

The LEAPS grant offers an opportunity to create an even more inclusive, welcoming, and supportive community of plant biologists, and it is crucial that IS-MPMI be a part of this. Within this partnership, IS-MPMIConnect will continue its mission to contribute toward the promotion of an inclusive society, celebration of diversity, and recognition of excellent science. I am very much excited to see where IS-MPMIConnect will take us this next year!

Allyson MacLean, ISMPMIConnect Founder

This change work will begin within ASPB and our initial plant science organization partners: the International Society for Molecular Plant Microbe Interactions (IS-MPMI), The American Phytopathological Society (APS), the American Society of Plant Taxonomists (ASPT), the Botanical Society of America (BSA), the Maize Genetics Cooperation (MGC), and the North American Arabidopsis Steering Committee (NAASC). In addition, we have partnerships with Corteva Agriscience and Bayer Crop Science to ensure that the plant science industry benefits as well.

We will also be working with STEM inclusion organizations, including the Society for the Advancement of Chicano/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS); Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANRRS); Out in STEM (oSTEM); and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). We will grow our network of partners in this area as well, ensuring that we are listening to all marginalized communities and working to remove structural and systemic barriers to true inclusion.

Equity and diversity in plant sciences benefits not only minorities, but all members of our community. The success in the LEAPS application provides a fantastic opportunity to make good on bold intentions of driving cultural change to support equity and diversity in plant sciences.

Giles Oldroyd, Chair of IS-MPMI Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee

Collectively, these organizations will develop and propagate tools for cultivating a sustainable sense of shared belonging and removing oppression from individuals with identities that are historically and currently marginalized (based on gender, gender identity, disability status, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or race). Although each RCN participant organization has begun this work, the award will allow the coordination and resources needed to enact meaningful change and to achieve lasting impacts in reshaping the entire plant science community.

As president-elect of IS-MPMI, I am very much looking forward to working with other plant-centric societies on building a more diverse, inclusive, and welcoming scientific enterprise. As MPMI scientists know extremely well, monocultures are not sustainable systems. Recruiting individuals into IS-MPMI with diverse viewpoints and world experiences is critical to the success of our society and, more importantly, to meeting the many challenges facing the world in the coming decades. This RCN will provide an outstanding platform for IS-MPMI to learn from experts, and from other societies, as we all strive to build a more just world.

– Roger Innes, IS-MPMI President-Elect

The ROOT & SHOOT program was collaboratively designed to accomplish three major aims: first, to immediately address known key systemic barriers to full participation within each organization; second, to require the partner organizations to dig deeply into themselves and build more equitable and inclusive structures; and third, to allow the plant science community to identify bold new directions that will continue expanding participation and provide a system of coordination of the required labor and sharing of ideas, practices, and outcomes (community-based working groups). The award also will provide broad training of the plant science communities in equitable practices and operations, including inclusive teamwork, climate and culture assessment, and culturally responsive mentoring.

This is fantastic news! This is an important step forward for IS-MPMI and our partnering societies. Over the past two years, IS-MPMI has been developing new interactive platforms to build a stronger, more inclusive community. We will be able to build upon these activities and establish an inclusive environment by directly addressing the climate and cultural deficiencies in our society and practices. I look forward to collaborating with colleagues on the ROOT & SHOOT project to help develop and implement effective tools to transform the future of IS-MPMI, as well as scientific societies worldwide. I'd also like to extend enormous gratitude to my ASPB colleagues and their partners for developing this vision and to the National Science Foundation for providing the framework and funds to support this transformative work.

– Mary Beth Mudgett, IS-MPMI President

In the fourth quarter, as the award begins, we will begin to ramp up the RCN programs by creating a website for real-time information dissemination and community feedback, identifying experts and trainers to guide our practices and work, forming working groups and training members, and preparing webinars and workshops. More information about opportunities and how you can participate will be provided in the coming months—so stay tuned!​

Jun 14
Helpful Tips for Making Presentations Accessible, from Your Disabled Colleagues
Breanne Kisselstein, Ph.D. Candidate Plant Pathology, Cornell University

Breanne Kisselstein (She/Her/Hers)
Ph.D. Candidate Plant Pathology, Cornell University
DeafBlind, Invisible Chronic Illness, and Guide Dog User

Chelsea Newbold, M.S. Plant Pathology, Oregon State University

Chelsea Newbold (They/Them/Theirs)
M.S. Plant Pathology, Oregon State University
Low Vision and Anxiety

Sarah Boggess (She/Her/Hers), Research Coordinator, University of Tennessee
Sarah Boggess (She/Her/Hers)
Research Coor​dinator, University of Tennessee
Spinal Muscular Atrophy and Power Wheelchair User​

Breanne Kisselstein, Chelsea Newbold, and Sarah Boggess

In a world where new committees and positions are constantly being formed in our universities and scientific organizations around the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion, it's important to remember that disabled people also belong to this spectrum of diverse people. We know that 30% of full-time employees working in white-collar professions in the United States have a disability, but only 3.2% disclose their disabilities to their employer (Source: Center for Talent and Innovation's "Disabilities and Inclusion" report, 2016). This means that many of our colleagues are disabled or have chronic illnesses that we likely do not know about. As we already know, diverse experiences allow us to have different perspectives and come up with novel solutions to the world's problems. Isn't that why we became scientists in the first place?

So now that we all agree that we need to do better to make sure our colleagues can participate fully in science, let's talk about how we can do better! While there is a plethora of ways we can make every part of our scientific communities more equitable, let's focus specifically on how to give presentations that are more accessible to people who live with color blindness, hearing or visual impairments, neurodiversity, autism, or dyslexia. Here's a checklist to get you started with the basics:

  • Use simple sans serif fonts like Arial, Comic Sans, Verdana, Tahoma, Calibri, or Helvetica. Serif fonts (like Times New Roman) can be more difficult to read, particularly the more decorative, hand-written, and italicized fonts. "Will Comic Sans Make a Comeback?" is an interesting opinion article on accessible fonts and when to use them.

  • Use a high-contrast color scheme like black text on a white background or vice versa.

  • Avoid using large amounts of text and make sure the text remaining is large enough, i.e. 14-point font on handouts and written documents and 24-point font on posters and slideshow presentations.

  • When making graphs and figures avoid using color combinations like red and green, green and brown, green and blue, blue and gray, blue and purple, green and gray, or green and black. (Here is a useful link that shows variations on color schemes that make them more accessible.) Also, use text and object colors that clearly contrast with the background. Black text and arrows on a white or pale grey background (or vice versa) might seem "dull," but it is easy for most people to read.

  • Perform an "accessibility check" on your documents in recent versions of Microsoft Office and Adobe in the Tools menu under Check Accessibility or Accessibility.

  • Use accessible slide designs. Click here to download free templates and learn about how to create accessible graphs, reports, presentations, social media posts, and more.

Poster Presentations

Poster presentations are often a key point of information sharing at both national and regional meetings, and it is the critical conversations and dialogue that emerge from these presentations that drives our questions forward. To best serve all attendees, we recommend the following guidelines for creating a more accessible poster:

  • ​Make sure your line and character spacing is not too small. Use between 1.2 and 2.0 line-spacing to allow the reader greater ease in moving from line to line. If your processor allows for letter-spacing adjustments +3 is adequate.

  • Consider creating word document, PDF file, and/or webpage versions of your poster and provide a QR code or link on your poster to the above options. QR codes can be easily generated through free online software or websites (e.g., www.qr-code-generator.com). This will allow viewers to access a digital version of your poster or affiliated handouts and use screen reader software. In these electronic versions, be sure to include alt (alternative) text for figures, graphs, and illustrations. Here is a great resource to learn how to write image descriptions, alt text, and captions and what the difference is between the three.

  • Consider creating an audio recording of the text and description of the visual materials on your poster and provide a QR code or a link on your poster to the audio recording. Pro tip: Generating this audio recording will also have you fully prepared for when people stop by your poster at in-person meetings!

  • If you are presenting your poster in person, face the people you are speaking to and avoid covering your mouth so they can see your lips. Avoid chewing gum or eating when you are talking. If you must wear a mask that covers your mouth be sure to include alternative options, such as a QR code and voice recordings.

  • If an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter is present, speak directly to the person who is deaf or hard-of-hearing. Also, if an interpreter voices for a deaf person who signs, look at the person signing rather than the interpreter.

  • If you will be presenting a video description of your poster, include captioning (see tips for Online Presentations below).

  • It has been suggested in recent years that the Better Poster format (i.e., billboard poster format) is one way to communicate your poster's main ideas more effectively and clearly to your audience, and it makes your poster more accessible to a diverse audience.

Note: Most people with a smartphone can open their phone's camera and hover over the QR code on your poster to be brought to the link!

Additional Resource Links

  1. American Public Health Association – Accessible Poster Presentations

  2. CMD-IT – Presentation and Poster Accessibility

Oral Presentations

In-Person Presentations

Oral presentations are key ways of communicating our research to other scientists, whether they are given at department seminars, conference sessions, or other venues. They serve to not only present findings but engage members in the fascinating research happening within the scientific community. To help you craft an accessible oral presentation, we recommend the following guidelines:

  • Give your slides to disabled audience members, captionists, and interpreters ahead of the presentation.

  • Avoid slides with an excessive number of pictures, images, or screenshots. If you do use illustrations in your storytelling, be sure to verbally describe the images or figures that are shown on each slide during your presentation. For example, "This image of a broken padlock represents how plant defenses can be overcome by some pathogens."

  • Avoid complex tables and graphs. Only include information needed to tell your story and be sure to describe the results in your presentation. For example, "The bar graph on the left shows that the growth of Pseudomonas in Arabidopsis was 10-fold lower following the treatment compared to the nontreated control."

  • Include alt text to describe an image when pictures and graphs are used, especially if your slideshow will be shared with the audience before or after your presentation. Here is a great resource for creating image descriptions and alt text.

  • Use a minimum font size of 20 points for less important text but keep most text around 30 points. If you have a hard time fitting all of your text onto a slide, try to be more concise with your information or separate the information into multiple slides.

  • Use plain language. Speak loudly, clearly, and directly into the microphone at a moderate pace. Use active words and short sentences. Use language that reinforces the visual material on your slides.

  • Always use the microphone provided. In some cases, the amplification system is connected to an FM transmitter, and people with hearing aids rely on sound coming through that system. If your presentation includes sound, make sure the sound is also routed through the amplification system and that captions are accurate and displayed on any videos.

  • Repeat audience questions using the microphone so that all listeners can hear the question.

Online Presentations

Online presentations and on-demand content are likely to become more common as we phase back into in-person mee​tings following the COVID-19 pandemic. Crafting prerecorded and live online content presents unique opportunities to prepare accessible presentations. To help you craft an accessible online presentation, we recommend the following guidelines:

  • ​Follow the layout and content guidelines already described above.

  • Design your content to be interpreted by assistive technology. Use a templated slide format. For example, rather than adding text boxes to existing layouts, add new content placeholders to the slide master if possible.

  • Use automated or live captioning for your presentation. Share your slides or a list of key terms (i.e., species names, acronyms, measured response variables that you repeat often) with the captionists or captioning software beforehand and remember to speak slowly, clearly, and loudly enough that the captioning can be as accurate as possible. Zoom, Microsoft PowerPoint, and Google Meet all have automated captioning options that you should get in the habit of using for all meetings and presentations, even if nobody discloses a disability to you.

  • Use ASL interpreting when possible and share your slides and a list of key terms with the interpreter beforehand.

  • If the presentation will be posted online for asynchronous viewing, proofread and edit the captions and transcript. Make sure that when they are posted, captions are available and working. (This takes the burden off disabled people who will assume that captions and transcripts aren't available and, therefore, will be unable to access the material or be forced to look for a contact person to ask if these are available.)

Additional Resource Links

  1. VENNGAGE – How to Create Accessible Designs

  2. DLF – Delivering Presentations and Facilitating Discussion

  3. EuroPlanet Science Conference – Oral Presentation Guidelines

  4. Do-It – Equal Access: Universal Design of Your Presentation

Social Media

Social media has become a great way to help disseminate our scientific research and discover new collaborations. We present here a few suggestions to help you share your research through social media so it is accessible to all people:

Twitter

  • ​Insert alt text before posting (it cannot be done retroactively on this site).

  • When you see images or gifs, reply to other posts with "@ImageAltText," and the bot will reply with the alt text that was inserted by the original poster. If it says no alt text, then kindly ask the original post creator to delete and repost the image with alt text. This is especially important if the image is about a job posting or displays a flyer for an upcoming talk that includes a registration or video conferencing link.

  • Follow @AltTxtReminder to receive reminders when you post something without alt text, so you can quickly delete and repost with alt text.

Instagram/Facebook

  • Proactively and retroactively add alt text to all posts.

  • Include image descriptions in your captions or a pinned comment.

  • If you see valuable content from another creator that does not have an image description in the caption or pinned comments, kindly ask the creator to do so.

  • If sharing a short video, add a transcript of any speech, either directly to the video captured or in the description.

Others

  • If releasing a YouTube video or podcast episode, please provide captions and a downloadable transcript along with every podcast episode. You can use a transcription software, such as Otter AI, Temi, Trint, or others, to generate a transcript, edit any mistakes, and share them with your deaf, hard-of-hearing, English as a second language learners, and every other member of your audience.

Additional Resource Links

  1. AbilityNet – How to Do Accessible Social Media

  2. Twitter – How to Make Images Accessible for People

  3. OtterAI – Generate Live Transcripts

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Dennis Halterman for generating the idea to write this much needed article, for seeking out and valuing all of our knowledge, experiences, and input, and for giving us insights and edits to polish and publish this information. Secondly, we would like to thank The American Phytopathological Society (APS) Committee for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). This committee is co-chaired by Breanne Kisselstein and Krystel Navarro and vice chaired by Mariama Carter and Chelsea Newbold. The accessibility subcommittee is led by Chelsea Newbold and brought these three authors together to share this information with you. Please feel free to contact Breanne Kisselstein in order to contact the authors or receive more information on how to make scientific conferences, presentations, and STEM as a whole more accessible for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, as well as people from multiple marginalized backgrounds.

Jun 14
Summarizing Your Research in Just a Few Minutes

Smiling man standing in front of a table of potatoes, with people talking in the background. He is wearing a button.Dennis Halterman, EIC IS-MPMI Interactions

With help from Carlyn S. Buckler, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Practice, Cornell University; Christine Smart, Ph.D., Professor, Cornell University; Hilary Bonta and Eve Nora Litt, Applied Linguists, language connectED

At this year's IS-MPMI eSymposia poster presenters are strongly encouraged to include a short video to accompany their poster. Although everyone has become familiar with virtual interactions over the past year, many of us have not practiced summarizing our research in a short 35 minutes format. However, having a prepared summary that is concise and effective can be extremely useful—not only in virtual settings, but also during in-person interactions (when things get back to normal). I have compiled some tips that I hope will help you as you prepare research summaries to accompany your posters at this year's eSymposia.

Here's a general talk outline that you might find helpful:

  1. ​Intro, your name, who you are – Approximately 10 seconds.

  2. What's the hook? Why should someone listen to you and be interested in your research? – Approximately 20–30 seconds.

  3. How will this help the person you are talking to, or what are the main points you want to make? Don't get bogged down in details—focus on the major findings and why they are important. – Approximately 1–2 minutes.

  4. Summarize the impact of your work. Why is it important, and how will it guide future research? – Approximately 20–30 seconds.

  5. Wrap-up, provide contact info, and ask if the person would like you to contact them, and/or let them know they can contact you. – Approximately 10 seconds.

Some helpful tips for developing your summary:​

Your poster will be available for everyone during the meeting on their own time. Therefore, it is not necessary to describe every experiment and result in detail—let the poster do that for you. Instead, take this opportunity to focus on the bigger picture of "why" you are doing these experiments and what impact they might have. Spend a bit more time highlighting the main research findings.

01Halterman_graphic.jpgKnow Your Audience

You may have created multiple talks depending on their purpose. It is a good idea to know who you are talking with and what they already know before you start. You don't want to get halfway through your talk and realize that your audience has no idea what bacteria are, or that plants can get sick from them. Alternatively, you don't want to spend a lot of time introducing plant-pathogen interactions to someone who just published a review paper in MPMI. While you can sometimes make changes "on the spot," it is always a good idea to have a well-rehearsed talk ready to go for most situations. For poster summaries at an IS-MPMI meeting, it is safe to assume that most people are familiar with molecular aspects of plant-microbe interactions.

Make It Personal

Do not just explain why this research is being done, tell them why YOU are doing this research. This will help people relate to what you are doing and help to feed into the story that you are telling. However, do not take this too far. You only have a couple minutes, and people do not need to hear your entire life story. It also helps to provide a "hook" right at the beginning (e.g., a mind-blowing statistic or surprising fact) that will help get your audience interested in listening to what you say.

Be Clear and Concise

You only have a few minutes to describe everything, so eliminate language that does not focus specifically on the story you are telling. If you find yourself struggling to keep your talk to around 3 minutes, think about what your audience needs to hear to remember your story. Your script (see below) will be helpful in highlighting essential language and removing the extra stuff.

Eliminate Jargon (Important for a General Audience)

You are familiar with many terms that we use like a second language in MPMI, such as hypersensitive response, effector, necrotroph, Arabidopsis, and Nicotiana, that even well-educated scientists may have a hard time understanding if they are not familiar with your area of research. Even relatively simple scientific terms, like nucleus, receptor, molecular, kinase, membrane, and expression, may not be appropriate to use when talking with someone who has not looked at a biology text book since secondary school. Avoid terms like these at all costs, unless you properly describe them to your audience. A good way to do this is to.

Use Analogies

Analogies can be used to help describe something complicated. It would be a great idea to have one or two "ready-to-go" analogies that you can use to help explain something. Try to come up with some common situations that might be similar to what you're trying to describe. When talking about pathogenic interactions, your analogies may tend to be violent because, well, the interaction is actually quite violent. I like to use the analogy of a burglar (the pathogen) trying to break into your house (plant cell). The burglar has a toolbox (effectors) that help them break in and steal your stuff. To counter this, your house has walls (cell walls), locks, alarms (R proteins), or an auto-destruct system (HR) that help to defend against the burglar. (I don't know of any houses with auto-destruct systems, but you get the idea.)

Keep in mind that some analogies might not be understood by everyone. Similar to "jargon," be mindful of your audience. Analogies that involve current events, religion, or regional culture, for example, may not be understood by everyone.

Be Aware of What Your Body Is Doing

Twirling your heair, scratching your nose, constantly shifting your weight, looking at the floor, or running in circlesall can be equally distracting when you are trying to keep someone's attention. You want people to focus on what you are saying, not what you are doing​.

Write/Type a Script

It will be critical that you use proper grammar, pronunciation, and speech patterns when you give your talk. This is an important point for everyone, not just non-native English speakers, so don't take this lightly. Think about what it is you are trying to say. What are some important vocabulary words that are needed to describe your research? Practice pronouncing them accurately. What syllables need to be stressed? If it helps, use your script to underline or highlight syllables with the most stress to help you pronounce them correctly.

PausesareGOOD. They can emphasize an important point and help you to slow down and think about what you are going to say next. In your script, work on "thought groups" and mark the text where you think pauses should go.

A well-rehearsed script will also help you avoid saying "um," "ah," "so," "you know," "right?,” etc.

In addition, distributing a script along with your video is incredibly important for audience members with visual, auditory, or other impairments. If you can add subtitles to your video, it would also be very helpful.

Do Not Be Perfect

Perfect can be boring and can seem robotic. You want people to know that they are listening to a person. Your goal should be to give a successful talk, not a perfect one. You should definitely practice your talk—a lot. The more comfortable you are with your talk, the more genuine you will seem. You may feel the need to eventually memorize your talk word-for-word. This is okay, but sometimes it may be better to memorize certain keywords or themes, so that if you stumble or forget something (which is fine, by the way), it is easier to pick up where you left off.

Recording Your Video

Using your phone to record your talk will likely work just fine. Please make sure the recording is in landscape (longer horizontally than vertically). If you do not have your talk completely memorized, you can use a teleprompting app (like PromptSmart) to help with the recording (you may find something else that works too). The free (lite) version of PromptSmart does not allow you to read and record at the same time, but you can use two devices (one to read the script and another to record). You will likely not get it perfect on the first try. In recording some videos of my own, I probably started and stopped 50 times before recording one that I liked. You may want to ask a patient friend if they are willing to help you record your video.​

Jun 14
Plant Health 2021 Online Preview: A Conversation with Keynote Speaker Professor Sheng-Yang He
Jim Bradeen, APS Internal Communications Officer

01He_photo.jpgIt started in a lab meeting one day. Members of Prof. Sheng-Yang ​He's lab reported inconsistent results in seemingly replicated disease resistance assays in Arabidopsis. Digging more deeply, the variation was traced to the use of different growth chambers that varied in humidity control, raising the question, "Could variation in humidity result in such dramatic differences in disease resistance?" Meanwhile, a student interested in how light impacts plant disease resistance pivoted when she accidently observed that small changes in temperature can alter defense responses. (This student's project spawned a line of research in the He lab that demonstrated the vulnerability of salicylic acid-dependent defense responses to temperature fluctuations.) Collectively, these fortuitous findings caused Sheng-Yang to reflect anew on the "disease triangle" he learned about in his introductory plant pathology class. Taken to a global scale, Sheng-Yang began to wonder about how the environment, and especially climate change, impacts plant health and what this means for global agriculture.

Sheng-Yang will have a lot to say about climate change, plant health, and the future of agriculture during his Keynote Address, "Plant-Pathogen Warfare under Changing Climate Conditions," at Plant Health 2021 Online on Monday, August 2.

I asked Sheng-Yang how he got started in plant pathology. He shared that he grew up in China and witnessed firsthand how devastating challenges like rice blast and cotton boll weevil can be for plants, farmers, and those who rely on healthy crops. In graduate school, he studied plant pathology at Cornell University. He has built a successful and celebrated career working on Arabidopsis, its interactions with pathogens (especially bacterial pathogens), and molecular mechanisms in both plant and pathogen. However, he has never forgotten his agricultural roots or the importance of his research for solving plant health problems.

Now at Duke University, Sheng-Yang and his lab group are exploring how environmental variation—in humidity and temperature, as well as in nutrition and CO2 levels—impacts plant health, plant defense responses, and pathogen biology. In an increasingly volatile global environment, this is a field ripe for research. Sheng-Yang indicates that all we have learned as a scientific community in recent decades about both host and pathogen means we can now tackle environmental variation, the third side of the disease triangle, with renewed research vigor.

I asked Sheng-Yang for his advice for those just starting out in plant pathology. He indicated that one of the strengths of our discipline is the diverse perspectives it brings. Given his fortuitous foray into his current line of research, it should be no surprise that he encourages students and early-career professionals to focus on the big picture and to think about how our research impacts the real world. Sheng-Yang offered, "Plant pathology is a fascinating field. Once people begin to see the breadth and depth of the field, they are excited," and he sees a future for our discipline that intersects with other fields of study, from chemistry to engineering to informatics.

So, what can we expect from Sheng-Yang's Keynote Address? It's going to be exciting! We will hear about some recent and ongoing research from his program. We will be challenged to think about our own r​esearch and how it fits into the future of agriculture; how genome editing can be leveraged for plant health; the importance of crop wild relatives to sustainable agriculture; and new strategies for disease management. You won't want to miss this one! Tune in on Monday, August 2, for Prof. Sheng-Yang He's Plant Health 2021 Keynote Address, "Plant-Pathogen Warfare under Changing Climate Conditions."

Learn more about Sheng-Yang He and other Keynote and Plenary presenters.

Jun 11
Dear Advisor, It’s not just a bad day.
​EIC’s note: May was Mental Health Awareness Mon​th, so it is very fitting that this issue of Interactions includes the following article, written by UNC-Chapel Hill PhD candidate Susanna Harris, which captures the struggles that some student trainees can have in the lab. The article is aimed primarily at principal investigators and provides valuable suggestions to help support a mentally healthy work environment. This is a topic that warrants openness and communication and I’m hoping that it will incite further discussion among the IS-MPMI membership (questions, concerns, support, etc.​). There are multiple ways that you can do this: talk with your colleagues in your lab or department; provide comments or questions after this article; tag the @ISMPMI Twitter account (use #MPMImentalhealth​) in related discussions using social media; or start a dialog with other members at the Congress in Glasgow.  The people in our labs are our most valuable resources and a great blueprint for a healthy work environment should include support for both physical and mental health.  – Dennis Halterman, Interactions Editor-in-Chief

By Susanna Harris, University of North Carolina, C​hapel Hill

You see her sitting at her bench, writing something in her notebook. “Oh good, she’s doing better,” you think, giving your graduate student a smile to convey your approval of her renewed interest in work. Compared to the first few years, her rigor and amount of progress had been declining, her attention in meetings wavering, her usually bright smile dimming instead of expanding out as she takes a new direction in research. Her labmate told you she didn’t sleep for two days before her department seminar and couldn’t stop obsessing over the tiniest error she made during the talk. But now it looks like she’s turned things around and there is no need to bring any of this up.

Or maybe it’s a new student who joined your lab last month; he impressed you with quick wit and a range of knowledge during the interview, but you’re starting to have your doubts about his dedication to grad school. After missing two meetings in a row and becoming angry at the smallest negative word from a colleague, he’s hurting the lab environment more than helping to grow your team. When he admits to seeing a therapist, you feel uneasy but hope he will soon get back to being the person you hired. You leave it alone for him to figure out. You know he needs to rediscover his excitement for research; academia is a hard but rewarding place where optimism is crucial in the face of stress.

Everyone has bad days and everyone in academic research will face many a setback, but for someone with depression it can be nearly impossible to bounce back from these disappointments. Something that causes a few days of stress for most researchers may result in weeks of fear and distress for someone living with anxiety disorders. These people may love science and want to do their research as much as everyone else, but the brilliant mind that they use to do the work is also the weapon hurting them.

Major Depressive and Anxiety Disorders are illnesses, not emotions to be pushed past1. Avoiding discussions around mental illness only further buries those struggling under more layers of guilt and shame. Still, navigating these waters is terrifying, especially since almost none of us is trained to start the conversation around mental illness. Around one in four graduate students2,3 are struggling in any two-week period, chances are YOU will need to at least dip your toes into this area or risk facing the consequences of a trainee’s ongoing suffering, both for the trainee and for your lab.

So how, with the liability issues and general discomfort of bringing up these topics, can you support your students? Think about mental illness like any other illness.

If you saw your student struggling with their physical health, what would you do?

Asthma is another chronic illness that affects millions of adults and which used to carry a similar stigma as depression does today4. You may know that a student suffers from moderate asthma and carries an inhaler, but you are not their physician and would never give medical advice; however, if you noticed that person struggling to breathe while just walking up a flight of stairs, you might ask if they were okay. If a cold spreads around the lab, you know their respiratory system could have a harder fight to clear out the virus. And if that person’s health was so bad as to disrupt their own or others’ productivity, you’d urge them to use the resources available to students, possibly offering them some time off to get better. All of this can still be true for someone dealing with depression, especially during the particularly stressful or demoralizing moments that occur throughout grad school.

The love of science cannot save a person from a depressive episode5, just as the love of running will not save an asthmatic from an attack. You are in a unique position to guide your students to the resources that can help them monitor and support their mental health.


Here is a short list of suggestions to help you get started.

1. Know your resources and requirements

Every institution has resources, but many students and faculty don’t know where to start looking. Searching through the websites yourself can be very helpful, but a director of student affairs or your department chair can help point you in the right directions. You can also email the student health services or set up a meeting with HR. Knowing what resources are available, and what guidelines and laws you are required to follow, will help you to support your trainees while protecting yourself and the lab.

2. Create a supportive lab environment

Now that you have the resources in hand, make sure that your own lab knows how to find them. If you don’t yet have a lab website with clear expectations and practices, set one up based on others’ examples6,7. In addition to curating these resources, writing a statement of support for health and diversity can show trainees that you are open to discussing these types of topics and supporting their efforts.

3. Recognize the warning signs

While we highlight Major Depression and Anxiety Disorders, many symptoms of mental health distress are common across a spectrum of illnesses8.

a. Excessive worrying or sadness

b. Difficulty concentrating

c. Loss of interest in activities (anhedonia)

d. Extreme mood changes, including euphoria or irritability, or changes in energy

e. Avoiding friends and social activities

f. Changes in eating habits or absue of substances

g. Inability to perceive changes in one’s own behavior or personality (anosognosia)

h. Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress

4. Ask questions

It’s okay to ask your students how they are doing, as long as you actually listen to the answer. Given the types of sensitive information that comes out of these conversation, use discretion when sharing anything discussed, but also make sure to not put yourself in a legally compromising situation or ask for any medical information. If you feel uncomfortable about a specific situation, ask if student support services can help moderate or invite the student to bring a colleague. Respect the student’s wishes as far as using email or meetings, and be careful to not spread information9; breaking trust is worse than having none to start with. That said, you might be a required reporter for self-harm or other threats, so know where those limits are10.

Also, talk with other faculty. Many have dealt with similar issues in their own labs and may offer advice or a listening ear. Avoid giving more information away than necessary, especially if the colleague might be likely to pass on your conversation.

5. Support yourself

Graduate students aren’t the only ones who can suffer. Take this time to reflect on your own mental health to make sure that the lab is strong from top to bottom11. If there should be no shame in your trainees getting help for their wellbeing, it should be equally acceptable and laudable for you to do the same12.


Why should we focus on graduate student mental health if all levels of researchers may struggle with mental illness?

Because we need to start somewhere, and most graduate programs focus directly on training students to be adept in all facets of academic work. You talk with them about dicey situations like getting rejected,  teach them how to navigate lab politics, coach them on giving great speeches, and critique their writing process until both of you are satisfied. In addition to training them to start new experiments after others fail, you can train them to bounce back more quickly when the failures start piling up.

The students in your lab are bright, devoted, and passionate. You care about their personal and professional success. Training them to not only use their mind, but to monitor and care for it will help them be a better researcher and academic far after they graduate from your lab. Maybe reading this, you feel some guilt about someone in the past for whom you didn’t know how to give the right support. Please, forgive yourself and learn from these times so you can help your current and future trainees.


Sincerely,

Your Trainee.


Links:

  1. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety “Learning the warning signs”:
  2. https://www.nature.com/articles/nbt.4089
  3. https://scholar.harvard.edu/bolotnyy/publications/graduate-student-mental-health-lessons-american-economics-departments
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1489832/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2796908/
  6. https://www.heemstralab.com/current
  7. http://www.dunlap.utoronto.ca/about/values-statement/
  8. https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Know-the-Warning-Signs
  9. https://chroniclevitae.com/news/1047-revisiting-disclosure
  10. https://www.brotherhoodmutual.com/resources/safety-library/risk-management-articles/children-and-youth/abuse-prevention/mandated-reporting-not-limited-to-child-abuse/
  11. https://chroniclevitae.com/news/809-rough-accommodations
  12. http://www.tucollaborative.org/sdm_downloads/supportive-academic-environments-for-faculty-with-mental-illnesses/


Susanna Harris is PhD Candidate in Microbiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @SusannaLHarris

Susanna is also the Founder of The PhDepression LLC (www.thephdepression.com). You can follow them on Twitter and Instagram at @Ph_D_epression


Mar 09
Imposter Syndrome: Dr. Dan Klessig Continues the Discussion

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.

Log in to join the conversation!

 

impostersyndrome.jpg 

By Dr. Dan Klessig, Boyce Thompson Institute and Member of the Interactions Advisory Board

klessig-edit.jpg


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.

Dec 14
Impostor Syndrome and You: A Discussion of a Little-Discussed Phenomenon

by Katelyn Butler and Michelle Marks, Department of Plant Pathology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Editor's note: After participating in a roundtable discussion on impostor syndrome led by Michelle and Katelyn at the 2017 APS Annual Meeting, I invited them to develop the following article. The Interactions advisory board and I feel that impostor syndrome can have a profound impact on our individual well-being (from students to senior faculty), as well as on our interactions with members of the broader scientific community. Many of us wrestle with persistent issues that feed this phenomenon, but we are unwilling to talk about them because we feel that we’re alone. We hope that this article incites future discussions on this topic, and we invite you to share your own personal struggles with impostor syndrome in the “Comments” section of this article. I feel that the more visibility we can bring to this issue, the less of an issue it will become. This is exactly the type of article that I desire to see published in the new Interactions: a topic that affects all of us but cannot be or is not addressed in a classical research publication.  –Dennis Halterman, Editor-in-Chief

Log in to join the conversation.

What Is Impostor Syndrome Anyway?  

Michelle Marks & Katelyn Butler
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Maybe you’ve had thoughts like these: the ones where the little voice in your head is saying “I don’t deserve to be here,” or “I’m not qualified for this,” or “They are going to figure out that I don’t know ANYTHING!” Maybe you just somehow got lucky to be where you are or happened to know the right person, instead of earning success through your own merits. And any day now, somebody is going to figure out what a sham you are and kick you out of the program, deny you tenure, or fire you from your job.

If so, you might have experienced the impostor phenomenon, as it is known in the literature, or the impostor syndrome, as it is known more colloquially. Imposter syndrome was first described by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable, or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” The good news is, you aren’t alone. As Carl Richards (2015) described in his New York Times article, “Learning to Deal with the Impostor Syndrome,” many highly successful people—including acclaimed author and poet Maya Angelou and several U.S. presidents—have experienced imposter syndrome.

Although the prevalence of impostor syndrome is difficult to estimate, some have offered that 70% of people will experience it at least once in their lifetimes (Sakulku and Alexander, 2011). In our own conversations with fellow graduate students, faculty, and professionals, we’ve discovered such feelings are widely experienced and often persist throughout one’s career. In this article, we’ll discuss the origins of these impostor feelings, their potential consequences, and strategies for acknowledging and overcoming them.

I’m a Fraud and Here’s Why

Impostor feelings can occur for all sorts of reasons and in all types of people. Although first studied primarily in women, impostor syndrome is now recognized to be a common phenomenon among both genders. Valerie Young (2011), author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, categorized individuals with the syndrome into five subgroups. As described by Melody Wilding (2017) in her article “The Five Types of Impostor Syndrome and How to Beat Them,” they are (1) The Perfectionist, (2) The Superwoman/man, (3) The Natural Genius, (4) The Rugged Individualist, and (5) The Expert. While these personality types and traits can explain a tendency toward impostor feelings, specific events can initiate and perpetuate them.

For some, hese feelings can manifest early and may be due to personal experience, background, or characteristics (e.g., having a disability). Students returning to graduate school after time spent elsewhere may feel like they don’t belong or aren’t cut out to return to academic life. Similarly, first-generation graduate students, international students, and other nontraditional students may feel like impostors in their new and unfamiliar environments. Impostor feelings may be particularly common among members of minorities, who may worry that they haven’t achieved their success on their own merits but rather by others’ good graces or by blind luck.

Even students with a family history of higher education and academic achievement may suffer from impostor feelings. When expectations are high and achievement is valued, it’s easy for students to get overwhelmed by such expectations. (Check out the description of The Perfectionist in the Wilding article.) These individuals may feel that they can never live up to these expectations and those of their families. To a person struggling with impostor-like feelings, even the encouragement received by family members can cause anxiety as the individual continues to receive what he or she feels is unjustified praise and support.

It’s no surprise that impostor feelings can often be triggered by failures, which are exceedingly common in STEM. Whether it’s an experiment that didn’t work, a grant that didn’t get funded, or a job that wasn’t offered, such events are more catastrophic to those individuals already struggling with impostor syndrome. These commonplace disappointments are added to lists of evidence of their fraudulence and lead many individuals to question their skills and value.

Perhaps ​one of the biggest sources of impostor feelings is self-comparison to others. Of course, measuring oneself in relation to peers isn’t always bad. However, we are rarely all on the same playing field, nor are we always racing toward the same finish line. This peer comparison seems extremely common based on conversations we’ve had with both faculty and fellow graduate students, and in many ways, it’s inevitable as we progress alongside our cohort members. It’s easy to look at a fellow graduate student who has two published papers while you have none and wonder “What’s wrong with me and my abilities?” Margie Warrell put it well in her article “Afraid of Being ‘Found Out?’ How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome”: “Too often we fall into the trap of comparing our insides with others’ outsides; our weaknesses with others’ strengths.” 

More Than a Feeling

The insidious nature of the impostor syndrome is that it often manifests as more than just negative feelings, and real problems can emerge when these feelings turn into action (or nonaction). Feeling like you aren’t good enough or that the work you have been doing isn’t up to par can grind productivity to a halt. We have heard students describe being in the paradox of finding that they need help but are too afraid to ask for it for fear of outing themselves as impostors. Thus, they find themselves stymied and make little progress, further reinforcing their feelings of inadequacy. A lack of self-advocacy may also result, with individuals not pushing for professional development activities, such as speaking opportunities and outreach/teaching events, or not applying for scholarships, fellowships, or grants because they feel certain they are not worthy of such opportunities or recognition. Research productivity (of both students and faculty) could also be impacted, as those struggling with imposter syndrome may have a greater fear of asking the “big questions” and taking on risky (but potentially high-reward) experiments.
Image Courtesy of azilliondollars.com 

Image Courtesy of azilliondollars.com

 
At our roundtable discussion about impostor syndrome at this year’s annual meeting of The American Phytopathological Society (APS) in San Antonio, we also talked about perhaps the most damaging effect of impostor syndrome: the self-selection out of advancement opportunities, which is especially important for graduate students applying for jobs and for early-career professionals looking for promotion. Even when faced with all evidence to the contrary and despite encouragement from mentors, students with impostor feelings may still have severe doubts about applying for a job they feel they aren’t qualified for or negotiating a raise they don’t feel they deserve. Having such doubts can, of course, have real and significant impacts on the careers of those experiencing this phenomenon acutely. Many of the participants in our discussion echoed these worries, and several shared stories of having to overcome real discomfort when applying for their jobs and facing their own feelings of inadequacy—when in reality, they were well-qualified and good fits for their positions.

Furthermore, real mental health consequences, such as anxiety and depression, have been linked to impostor syndrome (Chrisman et al., 2010; Fraenza, 2016). Higher-intensity levels of impostor syndrome have been associated with poorer mental health overall (Sonnak and Towell, 2001). As mental health becomes a significant priority at many universities and businesses, an important part of improving the lives of those suffering with these problems can be acknowledging the role that the impostor phenomenon may play.  

Uncovering the Impostor

How can we as scientists at all stages of our careers work toward identifying and eliminating impostor syndrome? We must work together to instill confidence and encourage each other for the benefit of our field, our work, and our mental health. Following are some of the ideas that we’ve come up with in our own experiences and conversations with others. We hope that as you read our ideas, you come up with ideas to take to your own labs, organizations, and departments. 
  1. Talk about it. As mentioned before, we have engaged in discussions about impostor syndrome within our own department and at the APS annual meeting. Both times, we were blown away not only by the honesty of the participants but also by the widespread effects that impostor syndrome can have. However, we were pleasantly surprised by the incredible outpouring of encouragement, validation, and inspiration that occurred because of these conversations. When you hear from the graduate students that you perceive to have it all together, as well as professors and even award winners, that they struggle with the same issues, you suddenly don’t feel alone. By naming and discussing the issue, you can begin to identify impostor-like thoughts and work toward alleviating the effects of this toxic mindset. Normalizing the issue by having conversations with colleagues has been shown to play a role in relieving impostor symptoms (Mark and Smith, 2012). To that end, we think it would be immensely beneficial for our scientific society and others to have breakout sessions, roundtable discussions, and professional development training sessions at national meetings about impostor syndrome. These sessions would be helpful not only for those struggling with impostor syndrome but also for mentors and leaders.
  2. Acknowledge your own skills and success. As scientists, we are driven by what we don’t know. However, it’s important to reflect on what you have learned, what you have accomplished, and what skills you have acquired. Take time to list your talents, and remember them often. One bit of advice we have been given is to celebrate even the smallest victories—the PCR that amplified the right band, the plants that grew, the cloning reaction that worked—because even these small things (which may seem mundane to you) are important and show that you are capable and productive and working toward your goals. In the same vein, share your skills and knowledge with someone else. By teaching someone something new, you will be compelled to realize that you are smart, knowledgeable, and contributing to society. Participate in department outreach, work with the new student in the lab, help your friends understand a paper outside their expertise—these are all excellent ways to convince yourself of your accomplishment.
  3. Enjoy the learning process. In our second suggestion, we have you make lists of the progress you’re making and the successes you’ve had. If you do this over a period of time, you will be able to see how much you’ve learned or achieved. In your first year of graduate school, PCR may have been a chore, but now it’s routine. This is because it’s a skill you’ve obtained, and that’s important to recognize. Doing so creates a learning-driven mindset rather than performance-driven one, which can perpetuate impostor syndrome. Instead of seeing your knowledge gaps as evidence of fraudulence, see them as opportunities for personal growth. Purposely identify areas in which you’d like to grow, and plan ways to accomplish that growth. Rather than frame such an area as “I can’t do that,” think of it as “That’s something I’d like to learn.” No one comes to any position with all the skills and knowledge needed for success—so don’t put that pressure on yourself! Instead, seek out opportunities to learn, and bring others with you. As a bonus, you will be allowing someone else to teach you something, which helps refute his or her impostor feelings, too! 
  4. Be a good mentor. Before students skip over this section, we insist that everyone is or will be a mentor. Graduate students mentor undergraduates in their labs and classes. Senior graduate students mentor new graduate students. The earlier we can start rebutting impostor syndrome, the less persistent it will be in our culture. The best way to combat impostor syndrome is to hear from someone higher up than you that what you’re doing is okay. Impostor syndrome is fueled by misconceptions about yourself that are perpetuated in your own mind. Providing consistent, honest feedback as a mentor will give your mentees a better idea of their progress. Tell them what they’re doing well, and give them pointed areas in which they can improve. Doing so validates them as valuable members of the team while also providing targeted areas of improvement on which they can focus. Help mentees find experiences in which they can thrive, use their knowledge and talents, and continue to develop. Also, if you don’t have a good mentor right now, seek one out. Find someone you can be honest with, who has your goals in mind, and who will support you in your journey. In a recent study, mentoring was identified as a key antidote for impostor symptoms by academic faculty members (Hutchins, 2015). Thus, faculty members not only need to be good mentors but also to have good mentors.

Examining the nature and effects of impostor syndrome can feel daunting, dismal, and distressing. However, we hope that through reading this article, you have learned that impostor syndrome is a real and persistent phenomenon. If you’ve felt these feelings, you’re not alone. We’re with you! If you haven’t felt these feelings, we hope that you realize many of your colleagues do and that you will do your best to help them overcome their impostor feelings. Let’s all stop thinking that we’re inadequate and move confidently toward our goals.

 

References

  1. Chrisman, S. M., Peiper, W. A., Clance, P. R., Holland, C. L., and Glickauf-Hughes, C. 2010. Validation of the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale. J. Pers. Assess. 65:456-467.
  2. Clance, P. R., and Imes, S. A. 1978. The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychother. Theory Res. Prac. 15:241-247. 
  3. Fraenza, C. B. 2016. The role of social influence in anxiety and the imposter phenomenon. J. Asynchron. Learn. Netw. 20.
  4. Hutchins, H. M. 2015. Outing the imposter: A study exploring imposter phenomenon among higher education faculty. New Horiz. Ad. Ed. Hum. Res. Devel. 27(2):3-12.
  5. Mark, G., and Smith, A. P. 2012. Effects of occupational stresses, job characteristics, coping, and attibutional style on the mental health and job satisfaction of university employees. Anxiety Stress Coping 25:63-78.
  6. Richards, C. 2015. Learning to deal with the impostor syndrome. New York Times, Oct. 26. www.nytimes.com/2015/10/26/your-money/learning-to-deal-with-the-impostor-syndrome.html
  7. Sakulku, J., and Alexander, J. 2011. The impostor phenomenon. Int. J. Behav. Sci. 6:73-92.
  8. Sonnak, C., and Towell, T. 2001. The impostor phenomenon in British university students: Relationships between self-esteem, mental health, parental rearing style and socioeconomic status. Pers. Individ. Dif. 31:863-874.
  9. Wartell, M. 2014. Afraid of being ‘found out?’ How to overcome impostor syndrome. Forbes, April 3. www.forbes.com/sites/margiewarrell/2014/04/03/impostor-syndrome/#2ad4a72648a9
  10. Wilding, M. 2017. The five types of impostor syndrome and how to beat them. Fast Company, May 18. www.fastcompany.com/40421352/the-five-types-of-impostor-syndrome-and-how-to-beat-them
  11. Young, V. 2011. The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. Crown, New York.

 ‭(Hidden)‬ Blog Tools