An Interview with Mary Williams: Plant Teaching & Social Media

Mary Williams headshotThis week we spoke to Mary Williams about plant science education, her role as features editor of The Plant Cell, and effective use of social media for scientists.

 

 

 

What inspired you to focus your career on education in the plant sciences? 

As a biochemistry student whose friends were arts majors, I discovered that I really enjoyed the challenge of explaining things through plain language and analogy. After a postdoc I took a faculty position at a primarily undergraduate institution where professors were encouraged to explore different approaches to teaching.

By sharing ideas and resources through ASPB Teaching Tools in Plant Biology, workshops, and my blog, I try to help young scientists gain confidence and become better teachers.

How have people responded to the Teaching Tools in Plant Biology (TTPB) you have developed, and how are these being used?

The response has been really positive. I regularly hear from undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, lab heads and educators who are using them for a multitude of purposes including lesson preparation, self-learning and outreach. The articles can be accessed through most university libraries or via ASPB membership. They are also available throughout the developing world through the AGORA program.

The teaching tools articles are quite technical, so we didn’t anticipate that high school teachers would want to read them. However, in response to their expressed interest I started posting interesting newsclips and videos onto the various social media sites that I manage. This summer we’re moving all of the content onto a new platform, Plantae.org, which will provide a centralized place for educators to connect in what I have described as a Global Plant Science Learning Community. I’m really excited about providing a space for people to share their ideas and promote discussions about effective plant science teaching.

Why do you think teaching the plant sciences in an inspirational way proves so difficult?

The biggest obstacle is the preconception that plants are not interesting, which too often is conveyed by teachers in primary and secondary education. Additionally, many students have no first-hand experience of growing or caring for a plant, and this first-hand experience is really key. We find that many of the most engaged young people have grown up in close contact with plants, perhaps through a family’s involvement in agriculture or horticulture.

In terms of status and salaries, our society places a much higher value on medical sciences and medical research than the plant sciences; the tangible rewards of working with and studying plants are not always evident.

How can we better capture student imaginations when it comes to plants?

Giving students the opportunity to physically engage and inquire about plants is critical, and this has to span from the earliest years through university education. Students need to use all of their senses when exploring plants, and being allowed to explore in an open-ended way lets students develop an interest and curiosity about plants.

This idea of exploration and open-ended inquiry should continue into university, even in large lecture classes. Give students a pea in a pot to take home and observe. Hand out Brussels sprouts, green onions and daisies for students to pull apart and examine. Use some class time to pose open-ended questions. Good ideas are plentiful!

Innovative tools and support for teachers can also be found on sites such as Wisconsin Fast Plants developed by Paul Williams, SAPS and PlantingScience.org.

You are features editor for The Plant Cell. What does this role involve? 

TTPB is published by The Plant Cell, and we made the decision early on to focus our effort on the teaching of upper-level plant biology. This is the point at which students transition from using textbooks to the primary literature.

To write each article, I read dozens of recent papers and review articles to identify the key questions and the foundational concepts a student needs. I then create both a written article and an image-rich version of the information. Images are powerful ways to explain difficult concepts, and also are useful to people who teach and learn in languages other than English. After I finish the articles I send them out to several experts for peer review. I update the articles regularly so that they continue to reflect our current understanding.

A new initiative this year has been to draw on the talents of the community to develop additional Teaching Tools topics. We’ve been running competitions to solicit pre-proposals for development into Teaching Tools – you can read more about that here.

When did you first get involved with social media? How can social media platforms such as blogging and Twitter be of benefit to researchers? 

My social media roots stretch back to the early 1990s when I was active in the usenet email-based Arabidopsis and Plant Education newsgroups. These networks were excellent sources of resources, ideas and support as I became an independent researcher and educator.

I started using Twitter, ScoopIt and Facebook in earnest in 2011 with the encouragement of Sarah Blackford (@BiosciCareers) and the Global Plant Council’s Ruth Bastow (@plantscience). Like many people, I quickly realized the power of Twitter and other social media tools as a way to connect and converse with the broader community of plant scientists, plant educators, and other plant enthusiasts. Social media not only lets me meet and learn from plant scientists from around the world, but also keep abreast of new publications and get a glimpse into what is being discussed at conferences.

Mary identifying moss in the west of Scotland

Mary identifying moss in the west of Scotland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary’s top tips for getting started on social media:

  1. Apply the same social rules online as you would in real life
  2. Be friendly
  3. Give credit where it’s due
  4. Avoid talking about religion and politics; be culturally sensitive
  5. Listen a lot, talk a little
  6. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a while to get noticed
  7. Be professional; swearing, gossip and slander are common in the social sphere, but when it’s being broadcast to the world and recorded for posterity, think twice

GPC President Professor Bill Davies’ vision for the future

Global Plant Council President Professor Bill Davies discusses his vision for the future of the GPC and its role in meeting some of the global challenges facing plant science and society today.

GPC President Professor Bill DaviesRaising the profile of plant science

As we face the task of sustainably feeding an ever-increasing global population, the issue of food security has never been more pressing, and of course, plant science plays a fundamental role in addressing this challenge. Professor Davies believes the GPC can have a major impact in raising the profile of plants in all parts of society, but perhaps most urgently with the policy makers who can drive investment into research.

He explains: “Plant science tends to have a lower priority with funding agencies. A number of years ago there was quite a lot of talk about plant science being a pretty mature subject and therefore we didn’t need much money for research. Fortunately the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO) managed to convince the European Parliament and others that there was an important opportunity here, the funding continued and we’ve seen a lot of benefits from that – both in furthering plant science and enhancing food production”. He continues: “Raising the profile of plant science is key, and – more specifically – we need to think about ways in which, collectively, we could address some of these challenges”.

A global conversation

Genetic diversity research - CIAT

Image by Neil Palmer (CIAT). Used under: CC BY-SA 2.0

Professor Davies believes the GPC is well placed to tackle global problems on a worldwide scale, by providing platforms for member organizations and individuals to collaborate on a variety of issues: “There are some genuinely global challenges that the GPC could take on. We can try to provide more opportunities for people who might be interested in addressing things beyond the boundaries of their own national scientific societies”. He adds: “I’ve been a member of the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) longer than I care to imagine, and it’s been a really important part of my life. It delivers a lot more than just good science. The SEB has made and continues to make a big effort to operate internationally, but there’s a limit, whereas there’s no limit for GPC.

“One of the things we’ve been talking about is whether there is more that we could offer societies, particularly in developing countries. Are we making resources available that can be as influential in Ghana, for example, as they might be in the United States? If there are opportunities to broaden the scope of that offering, particularly to address some of the areas where food security is a major issue, then we can do that and, I hope, help national societies in parts of the world where they are not as influential as they might be. I believe that there is strength in numbers.

“It seems entirely logical to me to address global challenges with a global organization”.

Building resources

One of the key goals of the GPC is to build up databases of information and resources that can be used by researchers, plant breeders, farmers and other agricultural stakeholders all around the world. This is being done both as part of the three main GPC initiatives (Diversity Seek, Biofortification, and Stress Resilience), but we are also collaborating with the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) to launch an online platform for the plant science community this summer.

Gene bank - IRRI

Image credit: IRRI. Used under: CC BY 2.0

Professor Davies is keen to harness the power of the online community for cultivating a new excitement around plant science. He led a massive open online course (MOOC) about food security at Lancaster University last year, and was pleased to see how engaged the participants were. He explains: “We had 5000 students with a fantastic level of enthusiasm and commitment. At the end of it we were left with the feeling that people were keen to know more.

“My view is that if you listen to people talk about why they do the science they do, what’s involved, and to some extent how they do it, then I think you’re in a position to make a much more well-informed decision about the science in general or controversial issues, and to contribute to the debate”.

Professor Davies believes that the online plant science platform from the ASPB and GPC will provide useful resources for scientists, teachers and students alike: “I’m in this business because I was inspired by lecturers both as an undergraduate and in graduate school. If we can capture the drama and excitement of science, we can make it available to everyone. It’s a wonderful opportunity”.


Professor Bill DaviesProfessor William (Bill) Davies is the President of the Global Plant Council and Distinguished Professor of Plant Biology at Lancaster University, UK. His research into stress responses in plants and his involvement with many international projects aimed at improving global food security led to him being awarded a CBE award for services to Science in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours list. For more information, click here.

A Postcard From… The Australian Society of Plant Scientists

A new feature on the Global Plant Council blog will be ‘A Postcard From…’ In these posts representatives from our member organizations will tell us about their society’s visions, aims and activities.

This pioneering ‘Postcard From’ was sent in by Gonzalo Estavillo and John Evans, both members of    the ASPS.

aspspostcard

The Australian Society of Plant Scientists (ASPS) promotes plant science in Australia, and provides professional contact within our community of teachers and researchers in plant biology. Originally fo­unded in 1958, the ASPS currently has approximately 400 members from Australia and also overseas. It provides a forum for knowledge exchange so that the membership can build on both the depth and breadth of knowledge of plant functions. ASPS offers a unifying representation of plant scientists in Australia, and is linked with the Global Plant Council and many other important international plant science organizations.

One of the main activities of the ASPS is to provide mutual support and collective mentorship to facilitate the dissemination of new research. For example, there has been a long and mutually supportive interaction between ASPS and Functional Plant Biology, which is perhaps the most prestigious journal of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). ASPS is one of the foundation partner societies of ComBio, the annual international biology conference held in Australia. ASPS also sponsors other specialist workshops upon request.

The Society aims to nurture a new generation of plant scientists in many ways. It sponsors student attendance to ComBio through travel awards, and encourages active student participation by awarding poster prizes. Additionally, the RN Robertson Travelling Fellowship is available to students and early career researchers to support their research in another laboratory so as to widen their experience and raise their profile.

ASPS rewards excellence at all levels of scientific career development. Eminent plant scientists are invited to give the JG Wood or RN Robertson lectures at ComBio, in honour of the first two Presidents of the Society. Outstanding young plant scientists are recognized every year by the Peter Goldacre Award and the ASPS–FPB Best Paper Award. The commitment of ASPS to plant science education is reflected by both the ASPS Teaching Award, which recognizes innovative contributions to undergraduate teaching, and the development of online resources for plant biology teaching such as Plants in Action.

The Society’s social media platforms work with members to enhance their ability to do research and to educate others in plant sciences. The ASPS website offers the opportunity to connect with other members, get updates on the latest plant science research around the world, post jobs, student scholarship opportunities and conference announcements, and provides a growing collection of teaching resources for plants sciences. Phytogen is the Society’s newsletter blog to inform our own members and general readers with an interest in developments in Australian plant science, provide a vehicle for communicating new ideas, recent professional experiences, and forthcoming events. Finally, we use our Facebook and Twitter (@asps_ozplants) accounts to interact and engage with both scientific and general audiences. Meet us and view our photos in our ASPS Facebook page!

John Evans

John Evans is the current President of the ASPS and researches the physiology of photosynthesis at the Australian National University

Gonzalo

Gonzalo Estavillo is currently a research scientist at CSIRO and tweets @GMEstavillo