...From the pages of Agricultural Research magazine
ForumCycles of Learning:
You're a college sophomore who has just decided to take a job as
a part-time research assistant at a nearby plant genetics research laboratory.
It seems like a good opportunity, and the researchgenes and pollenpiques
The lab turns out to be a great place to work. There's much to learn,
and you're surrounded by people who enjoy what they do. Even better,
your supervisor, a top researcher in the field, wants to nurture your
interest in science....
....Seven years and one doctorate later, you return to the lab.
But this time, you're the one who's training and mentoring novice undergraduates.
As you introduce them to the world of laboratory research, you're determined
that their experience will be as valuable as your first job there.
This is a true account in the still-unfolding career of a young scientist
working today at the Plant Gene Expression Center in Albany, California.
It's one example of a cycle of learning that can continue for decades,
starting more new cycles as seasoned researchers share knowledge and
a zeal for science with newcomers eager to learn.
These learning cycles are formed, renewed, and strengthened every workday
at ARS laboratories throughout
the country. The cycles foster newly emerging talents and generate new
discoveries. They educate, enable, and empower.
ARS labs attract new talent not only because of the research topics
and the expertise of the agency's scientists, but also because the labs
are up-to-date facilities with the equipment necessary for leading-edge
research. Seminars and visitors provide continuous learning as well
as an opportunity to forge new collaborations with other labs in the
United States and abroad.
The scientist referred to in the example above returned to Albany to
re-join a Plant Gene Expression Center team whose work is described
in an article beginning on page 8 of this issue. Because it is jointly
managed by ARS and the University of California, many who receive mentoring
at this center are university students. But there are others as well,
ranging from local high-schoolers to postdoctoral fellows from universities
and private or government research institutions around the globe. At
present, trainees at the Albany center include 30 undergraduates, 10
graduate students, and 30 postdoctoral fellows.
The time and effort that ARS scientists devote to mentoring often stems
from a strong desire to help aspiring scientists succeed. Doesn't every
Ph.D. scientist remember the undergraduate years, when the path to a
doctorate sometimes may have seemed long and daunting? Established scientists
who share their skills, energy, and empathy with those who are not yet
as expert find that these mentorships can be among the most rewarding
aspects of their professional lives.
In return, ARS benefits not only from the work that the learners do,
but also from what is sometimes a new and wonderfully naive point of
view. Newcomers see the research from a fresh perspective. In response,
veteran researchers reexamine and reevaluate their research approaches
andsometimeseven revise them.
In the Albany lab, students are treated as full-fledged members of
the group from the moment they walk through the door and put on their
lab coats. For example, they attend lab meetings right from the start.
At first, they may understand very little of what's discussed. But by
year's end they will usually be familiar with almost every technique
that's being used.
The Plant Gene Expression Center has been fortunate to receive funding through the ARS Postdoctoral Research Associate Program, an agencywide, $5 million competition in which associate positions are funded for 2 years at $50,000 a year. This program attracts hundreds of research proposals from ARS scientists throughout the country who want to employ new postdocs in their labs. In the fall, ARS will announce which laboratories have received the funding. Later, the new hires will take their places next to their ARS mentors at the laboratory benches. As they tackle some of the toughest problems in agricultural research today, new cycles of learning will begin.
Sarah C. Hake
"Forum" was published in the August 2004 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.