Forensic PPEM might give you images of someone studying the microbiology of a crime scene. But this week I am thinking about several oratory experiences available to members of the department last week. The term forensics comes from the Latin word forensis which means ‘in open court, public’ and can be applied to presentations that are then challenged and defended in a collegial fashion.
Professor Brenda Wingfield joined the department last week for a sabbatical visit and offered to facilitate a research data breakfast club. She kicked off the club meetings by presenting her work on a conundrum she is facing in research on the genetics of mating type loci in her fungi of favor from the genus Ceratocystis. She explained that the research data club is an opportunity for someone to present raw data or early in a project in order to have friendly challenges about the approach and meaning of the results. She at FABI they meet before 8 AM and use this to improve their students’ abilities to defend their work and to make it better. The meeting was a success as a virologist, Dr. Rosa, looked at this problem from a different angle and provided some excellent ideas that may help solve the puzzle. We hope to see you at this week’s event. Please arrive by 9:30 AM to gather breakfast items and be ready for the speaker by 9:45 AM.
We saw an additional case of this during this week’s Microbiome Meeting. Where a documentarian presented their proposal for studying a complex microbiome problem. The scientists in the room where challenged to accept the process by which the artist was exploring knowledge. The artist was challenged with the knowledge held by the scientists and was supported to take the next step to make her work more scientifically rigorous. What came out of this was the idea for a grant.
This kind of challenge and improve approach was also mentioned in the brown bag lunch at which faculty, graduate students, and staff discussed successful strategies to grant success. One student shared that it was the challenges that he received by showing his proposal to several people in sequence that helped him to dig deep and write a successful grant. A faculty member shared that it was the comments back from a grant being rejected several times that helped make it better and finally get funded.
This congenial challenge and support approach is not new to our department. Our first written History authored by Dr. Tammen describes how this was done in the past. “This series of courses was to be “topped off” with a rigorous “challenge and defend” course on the advanced principles and concepts of plant pathology. This course was offered by Dick Nelson, one of the key leaders of our faculty in the development of our graduate program. He taught this course in the evenings in his home located just a few blocks from campus. The students were assigned premises for out-of-class study; after a week of preparation, they met for open discussion. They were told to come prepared to either attack or to defend the premise, but didn’t know which until Nelson made the assignment on the spot. The students considered the course to be a rigorous and challenging, but outstanding, experience. It prepared them well for their comprehensive exams and, equally important, for active participation in professional forums. In time, this course became a part of the lore of the graduate experience in plant pathology at Penn State by all who experienced it.”
Over and over again, I have seen the faculty in the department use the principles that are used in forensics in dealing with contentious issues. It is refreshing to watch as individuals disagree about approaches and outcomes using data and precedent without getting personal. A few times when I have seen someone step over that line, I have heard them apologize for getting so passionate. Minds can be changed and common ground found if we are all open to the process of collegial debate. With the goal of getting better at this myself, I am trying to adopt and use the techniques I see in those members of the faculty who are the best at this. It seems as though they hold curiosity as the main driver in these conversations rather than getting their way.
In these times where our political landscape is filled with personal attacks and lack of or distortion of data, it feels really good to be in a place where we focus on the issues rather than the personal. I hope you will continue to encourage healthy and collegial debate in our research and our programs.
Here’s to a challenging week.