The value of practicing humility in scientific research

Feng Li
Tuesday, May 21, 2019

This blog is an edited version of a speech originally delivered by Feng Li at the 2019 College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) commencement ceremony at the University of Minnesota.

While reflecting on my experiences in graduate school, one thought that immediately came to my mind was the value of humility. Practicing humility is not always the easiest thing to do, because it means we may have to expose our own weaknesses and that can be difficult. I would like to share with you how humility and open-mindedness to learning and collaboration have helped with my growth.

I remember my first semester as a graduate student. I was facing a significant language barrier; I was concerned how I was going to survive the demanding coursework and research load at graduate school. Following my advisor’s suggestion, I enrolled in a plant genomics course. At first I was reluctant because suddenly I was facing another “language” barrier as I hadn’t had any experience with programming languages which are important for the analysis of genomic data. But by stepping out of my comfort zone and humbly facing my fears, I realized that plant genomics and computational biology are interdisciplinary fields -- integrating computational methods to answer biological questions -- which is exciting and fun. Since then, I found my real passion for research. I now apply computational methods and genomic tools to solve challenges in agriculture and food security. So, my first message to you is “practice humility and recognize that we never stop learning. Stay curious and don’t be afraid to bring novelty and originality to your work”.

Feng Li, University of Minnesota graduate student, delivers her speech at the 2019 UMN College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences commencement ceremony. Photo by University of Minnesota Department of Plant Pathology.

CFANS is a collaborative community that hosts people from different cultures. It’s also a home for diverse and interdisciplinary research. Being humble and open-minded represents a path to learn from faculty members and peer students that are part of this community. This vision has been very beneficial for my professional development and I encourage you to learn from your neighbors.

I would also like to emphasize the importance of humility in building international collaborations. I have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to collaborate with international scientists to understand the biology of a devastating airborne pathogen of cereal crops – stem rust fungus of wheat. One of our most distinguished alumni, Dr. Norman Borlaug said, “Rust spores move long distances in the jet streams and know no political boundaries”, when referring to the critical role of international collaboration to prevent hunger in the world. In the last three years while working towards my PhD degree, my collaborative work with scientists especially from Africa and Australia further validated this view. Practicing humility allowed us to appreciate each other’s contribution to the team and take our research to areas we never expected. So, my second message to you is “practice humility and embrace team work”. Let’s respect each other and look beyond gender and country of origin.

As I think about my time at CFANS, I’m reminded of a Chinese proverb, “Be like the bamboo, the higher you grow the deeper you bow.” Let’s keep growing and reaching areas we cannot envision yet.

About the author: Feng Li is a graduate student in UMN Plant Pathology Assistant Professor Melania Figueroa’s lab. Her research journey has focused on wheat and oat rust diseases while utilizing bioinformatics and genomic tools to tackle challenges in plant disease. Her doctoral research focused on enhancing wheat productivity by identifying novel mechanisms for tolerance to diseases and understanding the genetic factors underlying the pathogenicity through genomics-based approaches, including the evolution of a stem rust isolate Ug99 which emerged in Africa and has spread to the Middle East.