Be the Change
My sixth and final President's Letter, with Mary Williams
Rob Last and Mary Williams
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Attributed to Margaret Mead, American Cultural Anthropologist, 1901-1978
Whether or not Dr. Mead actually uttered this quote, the words are as meaningful today as anytime during our lives. We all have opportunities to make positive change, and collaborative change is more enjoyable and perhaps more durable than flying solo. Which groups of committed citizens do you affiliate with? Are you an active or aspiring agent of change at work, home or within your social network?
Perhaps, like us, you sometimes wonder whether you are doing enough to promote positive change. It is not uncommon to wonder whether it was a good idea to ‘dilute effort’ outside of research and teaching, and this is especially prevalent for those early in their careers. The answer is ‘absolutely yes’, and here are a few examples and thoughts.
Work-life balance happens in unexpected ways. Winslow Briggs (1928-2019; bit.ly/ASPB_WinslowBriggs) enjoyed a career that spanned decades, doing science until his death 25 years after his official retirement from the directorship of the Plant Biology Department of the Carnegie Institution of Science at Stanford in 1993. In a memorable conversation, Winslow talked about how important downtime was to his creative process. He described how hiking, doing volunteer work at a nearby California state park, or relaxing in a beautiful place allowed his thoughts to move in unexpected directions, occasionally leading to some new scientific insight. Winslow is remembered not only for his contributions to science, but also for the time he spent with others - his encouragement and mentorship. When you think about work-life balance, remember that a change of scene, or working on a project that benefits others, can make you a better scientist. Reciprocally, being happy at work can make you a better friend, parent or citizen. Self-awareness and self-care provide the foundation from which you can effect positive change.
Allow yourself to be influenced by others. Maureen Hanson’s dedication to improving the Cornell plant biology community made a tremendous impression during Last’s time in Ithaca. In addition to running a successful research group, Maureen led NSF-funded plant sciences training programs during these years, providing fellowships for undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs, and bringing advanced technologies to Cornell’s campus. Maureen created grassroots institutional change and inspired faculty members and others to follow.
Today we are fortunate to be surrounded by many other members of the ASPB community who continue to offer inspiration, often using Plantae and ASPB training resources to have a global impact. Alex Rajewski and Sterling Field are helping ASPB to be a more welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ community members using Plantae (bit.ly/LGBTQ_PlantSci) and through activities at the annual Plant Biology Conference. Sonali Roy and Benjamin Schwessinger led efforts to bring reproducibility training and training resources to the community (see bit.ly/ExperimentalReproducibility101 to get started). We are inspired by Liz Haswell, Joanna Friesner and Jen Nemhauser for amplifying the importance of diversity for the future of plant science. They offer advice about making our disciplines more diverse (see the July/August ASPB Newsletter or bit.ly/PlantScienceDiversity), as well as through the DiversifyPlantSci database (bit.ly/DiversifyPlantSciList) and @DiversifyPlants Twitter account. Consider how you can follow these advocacy examples by identifying institutional and community needs and then use your energy and intellect to catalyze change.
Influence the world by becoming part of something big and positive. For complex reasons beyond the scope of this essay, citizens across the world are becoming increasingly insular and nationalistic. This is interrupting an unusually long period of relative stability in large parts of the world and is dangerous. 70 years without a continent-scale war is unheard of over hundreds of years of European history. If you live in a country where it is possible, get involved in politics by donating your time or money. If you have no taste for politics, or you do not live in a democracy, work for positive change in your community. In addition to improving the world, it may lead you to become happier and more productive. Every one of us has a role to play in making the world more stable.
After pondering what message to leave with you, we offer words of US footballer Megan Rapinoe.
“This is my charge to everyone. We have to be better. We have to love more, hate less. We’ve got to listen more and talk less. We’ve got to know that this is everybody’s responsibility. Every single person here. Every single person who is not here. Every single person who doesn’t want to be here. Every single person who agrees and doesn’t agree, it’s our responsibility to make this world a better place.”
From remarks made after her team received the keys to the City of New York from Mayor Bill DeBlasio on July 10, 2019.