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.
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.