The Rare Knowledgesphere

I sometimes get a self-depreciating response when I tell people what I do: “oh I could never do that,” “I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” or my least favorite; “I’m not smart enough to do that myself.”  Sure, I’m intelligent, but more importantly I am interested in my work and I put a lot of time and effort into practicing it.  I didn’t become a microbiologist overnight.  And more than that, in my career path I discovered a lot of people and opportunities that helped me get here.  I firmly believe that most people could do my job, given the right amount of education, determination, and support (and a heavy dose of enthusiasm for spread sheets).  As I move up the ladder, I’m increasingly in a position to educate, help others network, and bring students closer to their career goals.  One day I’ll be able to take on graduate and undergraduate researchers of my own, and I find myself asking, how will I find and recruit those students that just need an opportunity to become amazing scientists?  The ones that weren’t told by their teachers that they should be microbiologists but still have an aptitude for it, the ones that think they aren’t “smart enough” when really they just aren’t confident enough?

Lessons from the rare biosphere

One of the emergent theories in microbial ecology over the last few decades is that of the “rare biosphere.”  It’s the idea that microbial ecosystems are much more intricate than we realized, and there are a great many microorganisms present in any given environment that have very low populations.  We just couldn’t see them under a microscope or grow them in culture because their presence was washed out by more abundant microorganisms.  It wasn’t until the emergence of DNA-based technologies that we could really understand the depth of that diversity because this technology was able to sequence all or nearly all the DNA in the entire sample.

An anaerobic chamber allows microbes to be grown in an oxygen-free environment, and the different color plates represent different media recipes.  Credit: Kristina Bond.

When culturing bacteria in the lab, one must try to mimic the original environment as closely as possible in order to get that microbe to grow.  It is incredibly difficult to please “everyone” on just one or even dozens of different culture media types, so you end up getting a biased idea of “who” lives in a natural environment based on what species are able to survive in the mock environment you’ve created.  DNA-based technologies don’t require live microorganisms; you can extract DNA or RNA strands directly from your environment and sequence them, although you will need a reference database of previously cultured and sequenced microorganisms to make the identification.  Sequencing has its own problems, of course, namely being able to discern between a rare microorganism whose DNA represents a very small percentage of your data, and a random sequencing error inherent to your technology that turns a known sequence into a fake novel one.  One way bioinformaticians tackle this is by removing rare sequences altogether, but as Sogin et al. argue, you might be getting rid of significant contributors to your ecosystem.

This is just one example of a major theme in science: how do we detect something if we don’t know it’s there?  How to do we differentiate what is real (but rare) from the technological errors and background noise?  We constantly improve our technology and revise our understanding of the physical world as we get better at investigating it.  But as we rely more and more on technology that we have created (which may operate on the biases we have designed into it), and we want to collect more information with less human effort, we need to remember that it’s our intuition and reasoning skills that make humans so good at data analysis and investigation in the first place. This led me to wonder if we weren’t making the same mistakes in education.

One of the most common errors we commit is to mistake education for intelligence.  Intelligence is partially a natural ability for learning and understanding, and partially cultivated by an atmosphere of curiosity and interest in learning.  Education, on the other hand, has to be earned.  While public schools and other learning resources in the United States exist to give all children an equal chance at education, in practice there are significant biases in quality and quantity in education.

The disparity between education and ability

Student to teacher ratio is correlated with student performance, and can vary widely by type of school (public, private, elementary or secondary), geographic location, urban or rural demographics, etc.  Because of that, the national trend for student to teacher ratios in public schools appears to have only slightly increased (more students per teacher) from where it was in 2002, with that increase only since 2008.  However, much of the increase in student to teacher ratios is localized, specifically in low-income districts, so there is a disproportionate affect by economic status.  Many teachers in low-income school districts cite budget cuts that result in overwhelmingly large class sizes to be the main reason they quit education (discussed here).  And a poor school budget does more than just crowd students, it depletes the school of educational resources which reduces the quality of the education and student performance.

Therefore, just because someone appears uneducated does not mean they are not intelligent.   For example, Linus Pauling, who was competing with Britain’s Watson and Crick to discover the structure of DNA, didn’t obtain his high school diploma until after he won two Nobel Prizes simply because he didn’t finish some required high school history courses.  A recent study looked at grade point average (GPA), SATs (previously the Scholastic Aptitude Test), graduate record examinations (GREs- the standardized tests that most schools use as a graduate entrance qualifier), and whether test scores predicted how well someone performed as a graduate student.  Like undergraduate study, most graduate programs require a minimum GPA and GRE score even to be considered.  However, the study found that students with higher test scores didn’t actually perform better as graduate students.  In fact, here’s a whole website about geniuses that failed IQ or other aptitude tests that went on to change the world.  Here’s another about artists, politicians, and business tycoons who failed repeatedly before becoming household names.

Another problem is our biased view of the quality of an education based on the country of origin.  Indian mathematician and genius Srinivasa Ramanujan was born in a small village in the late 1880s.  He started performing advanced geometry and arithmetic at just 13 years old, and began focusing on mathematics in secondary school and at a local college.  At 26, he wrote to British mathematicians looking to discuss his ideas, and was dismissed out of hand by almost all of them.  G.H. Hardy, however, wrote back, and began a collaboration of ideas that led to an incredible body of work between the two of them.

The Rare Knowledgesphere- The one that almost got away

This idea of overlooking greatness is important to keep in mind when ranking people by their resume or test scores instead of by an interview.  After all, just because you attended Yale doesn’t mean you went to all your classes.  This concerns me, because we may be passing over potential undergraduate or graduate students who appear less educated on paper, but aren’t less intelligent or less apt.

So, how do we as educators and mentors get beyond this bias and find the students and researchers-to-be that slip through the cracks?  The ones that are out there that aren’t even on our radar.  I’ll let you know once I’ve figured it out.  But from my experience, it comes down to taking the time to interview and really get to know someone before accepting them as a graduate student, not just selecting the best looking resume. It especially means letting go of your ideas about the quality of someone’s education based on the type or location of their school, as well as stereotypes about their abilities.

And it means being creative about marketing your positions, to make sure you are reaching the individuals that aren’t actively looking for you.  This may sound counter-intuitive; why try to recruit someone to graduate study if they aren’t interested?  Again, I can speak from experience.  My undergraduate degree is in Animal Science, and my interests in graduate study at the time centered vaguely around wildlife conservation.  Instead, I entered a graduate program where my primary research and laboratory work were focused on microbiology, genetics, microbial ecology, and bioinformatics.  I had no formal academic or practical training in these areas.  But I joined, and I excelled, all because my mentor-to-be told me that I was capable.  And here I am today, in love with my science.

With all this in mind, stay tuned for my post in the next few weeks on what makes a person a good graduate student, if it isn’t test scores.

Featured Image Credit

Imposter Syndrome

There’s been a lot of attention paid online lately to “Imposter Syndrome”. It’s that sneaking doubt that makes you feel like you don’t belong somewhere because you aren’t qualified, and eventually someone will realize the mistake and fire you.  In short: that you are an Imposter.  It’s extremely common among graduate students and young faculty.  In fact, I haven’t met a graduate student that didn’t doubt themselves and whether they deserved their place in a research program at some point in their studies.  Most studies on this phenomenon have been relatively small and in specific populations of people, thus estimates of affected individuals range from 40 to 70%, at some point in one’s life.

cat-imposterFrom my experience, in academia, Imposter Syndrome stems from feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information that you need to learn, or the amount that you need to accomplish.  The interdisciplinary approach to graduate studies has increased the number of scientific fields you now need to be familiar with, and compounds the amount of material that you have to memorize.  This seems to leave many students feeling inadequate and dumb, because they are unable to perfectly recall every fact they learned in two or three years worth of graduate courses.  For post-doctoral researchers and assistant professors, your To-Do list only grows longer by the day, as the reduction in federal funding increases the competition for fewer and fewer job postings and more pressure to distinguish yourself.  These tasks seem insurmountable, and that you simply aren’t up to them.  You start to doubt your abilities, and think that there has been some mistake.  You think, someone will realize how dumb I am, and that I don’t deserve to be here.

At best, Imposter Syndrome makes you nervous, at worst, it can lead to a lot of work-place stress and low self esteem.  It can also prevent you from taking risks in your research, or being ambitious in the positions you apply for, or make you feel guilty about taking time off when you feel that you should be using the time for career development.



Imposter Syndrome, or more clinically, Imposter Phenomenon, has been studied for several decades, and is reviewed thoroughly here.  Originally it was thought to be a symptom found only in professional women who weren’t emotionally strong enough to deal with the stress of the workplace.  Later, after it was described by Dr. Pauline Clance in 1985, and observed in many different careers and both genders, we came to understand that this sexist stereotype was in fact common to high-achievers, “perfectionists”, and those with anxiety and the motivation to succeed.

Correlations have also been found between feeling like an imposter and low or conflicting family member support, low self-esteem or general self-doubt, neurotic behaviors, or when there are negative consequences to achieving success.  For example, if a person is ostracized by friends or family for working hard, studying, getting an education, or generally wanting a “better life” than the cohort has.   This can also occur when there is jealousy or competition between coworkers, where a promotion or other success would alienate you.

Own your success


When graduate students express feelings of self-doubt to me, I remind them that they already got into grad school.  Their graduate program was satisfied by their application, their PI or advisor chose them for their accomplishments.  I remind them that in academia, you can’t compare yourself to anyone else.  Everyone has come from different backgrounds, has different work experience, took different classes, read different papers, and has different research and career goals.  Maybe you got PhD but you don’t want to do research, only teach.  Maybe you only want to do research.  Maybe you want to publish ten papers a year, or maybe you only want to publish once a year because that is more consistent with the pace of your research and the type of work that you do.  Maybe you have more post-docs who work on complicated questions, or maybe you have undergraduates and your projects are smaller.  Some research fields (especially literal fields) can’t be rushed, and it’s unrealistic to expect prolific publications from everyone.  Cognitive behavior therapy guidelines for dealing with Imposter Syndrome recommend distancing yourself from the need for validation from others, to improve your self-awareness about your own abilities and needs, and to lessen the feeling that you need to hide the real you.

There is no litmus test for whether you are a “good graduate student”, or a “successful researcher”, except for your own demanding self-assessment.  All you can do is try to set realistic goals for yourself.  And not vague, large ones, such as “I want to publish 5 papers this year”.  Be more specific, and more short-term: “This week, I want to finish the Methods section of this paper, and hopefully have a working draft of this manuscript by the end of the month”.  I also find it helpful to keep a written record of what I’ve done.  Maybe keep a running To-Do list, and at the end of the week, month, or year, look back and see all of the things you have crossed off.  This is most helpful to me when I find that projects are getting delayed, or analyses need to be redone, or I generally feel like I am spinning my wheels.  Or, when I write a number of grants but some of them don’t even get submitted.  I still did all that work, but if I don’t have that item crossed off my list, I don’t have a visual reminder that I accomplished something.

And keeping a tally of everything you’ve done- not just the things that get published, can help you prove your worth and your effort when it comes time for job assessment.  Whether it’s a weekly meeting with your PI where you need to account for how you’ve spent your time, an annual performance review, or the tenure process.  If you have a written record of all the things you have done, all the little things that you spent your time on, you have proof that you have been productive.  Remember that success and failure are often out of your hands- especially in research.  Sometimes all you can do is try your best and hope that your fairy grant-mother rates your proposal wish as “outstanding”.

Cinderella, 1950

Happy 1 year dissertation defense anniversary!

A year ago today I gave the public defense of my PhD dissertation!  It was a stressful day, especially because my laptop crashed just 10 minutes beforehand while I was practicing and making last minute adjustments!  Luckily, I had prepared by bringing the presentation on a flash drive, and by putting it on an online cloud drive as well.  My parents brought enough potato salad, cookies, cake, and Italian meatballs to feed the dozens of attendees and then some.  I really appreciated the friends and family that showed up to support me, some had even driven to Burlington, VT from Massachusetts just for me!  You can watch my full defense presentation on YouTube.

After a long hour of presenting my work and answering questions from the crowd, my graduate committee and I left for the closed-door portion.  For the next two and a half grueling hours, 5 field-leading researchers asked me questions about everything I had done, and what I might have done differently.  Finally, they asked me to step into the hallway while they made their final deliberations, where I nervously ate cookies as fast as I could because I hadn’t eaten in hours.  They came back out 5 minutes later smiling, and announced that I had passed!  You can read my full thesis here.

Where’d the spark go? When it’s time to break up with your graduate program.

Remember when you first met your graduate program? You got that little thrill whenever they emailed you. You started measuring the graduate student office for new drapes. You just wanted to spend all your time in the lab, and couldn’t be happier doing so. As time went on, you learned a lot about your field and about yourself. You grew as a person and became more confident in your work. Eventually, the relationship started to stagnate: you got tired of working on the same old projects, ran out of interesting classes to try, you felt like it was never going to get the next level and, well, you got bored. It happens to everyone, and it’s important to recognize the signs (1), before the relationship becomes negative.

I have seen it before. Graduate students have trouble finishing up projects and getting manuscripts published, their PIs change the subject when the time comes to set a defense date, they feel like a perpetual student, until they become frustrated at the creeping feeling of no control over their life or the pace of their career. And eventually, many of them reflect this frustration outwardly by complaining about their PI, their department, their university. This is detrimental to yourself and to the quality of your work (2) (3), to the other students around you who still have several years of graduate work to look forward to, and to prospective students (4).

And more than that, it doesn’t help you to find your next position, because you find yourself complaining to people that you probably shouldn’t open up to: people you meet at a conference, a candidate interviewing in your current department, the interviewer for your prospective job. No one likes to hear someone rag on their old boss if they might one day be the boss you are badmouthing on social media.  Nor they do they want a team member who is going to bring down the tone for the whole group.

When you are ready to move on in your career, you know, and you need to take responsibility and control of your trajectory to make it happen. Set a timeline and stick to it, sit your PI down and set a defense date, curate your CV and start applying for jobs. Not just the two jobs that you really, really want, but any job that you think you might be interested in. The post-doctoral job market is small, and it’s difficult to find a position. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, as you may find yourself stuck in that particular graduate program if you’re not able to find a new position. The process will hone your skills as well, especially if you can get an interview. Use each opportunity, and if you don’t get the job, politely ask the interviewer how you could make yourself more competitive, or if there was an aspect of your work that was underwhelming or poorly explained.

The point is, don’t wait until you are sick of being a graduate student and can’t wait to get out, keep an eye out for your next move and be proactive about it. So put away those free t-shirts you got from vendors, get yourself some new business attire, get your CV in shape, and you’ll be surprised at how many interviewers ask for your number.

Here is another relevant and entertaining blog post on the subject.