Mind the Gap
Message from the Department Head
In our Spring 2022 newsletter we are proud to share with you some highlights of the exciting and important research being conducted in the Department of Microbiology here at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. A distinguishing characteristic of academic scientists is their passion for integrating discovery with education. Scientists stand at the edge of knowledge, pushing outward toward information and ideas that can and do change the world for the better.
Throughout my career I have been inspired by the students with whom I have interacted, who are learning where that edge is, where to push, and how to be comfortable with not knowing all the answers. Often, undergraduate researchers are just beginning to realize that there even is an edge, and as educators we are metaphorically holding up signs that say “mind the gap.” Graduate student researchers know there is a gap, and have decided to commit themselves to exploring what lies within it. This is a brave decision that causes them to diverge from their peers who are starting or continuing their jobs in the ‘real world.’ For many, becoming a graduate student means daily struggles: trying to make the experiments work, trying to explain to friends and family why the results were devastating or exciting, trying to explain to a mentor why the experiment was done that way in the first place, and trying to balance the many obligations that come with being a scientist, student, educator, and a human being.
In my view, one of the greatest privileges of being a faculty member at an institution like ours is watching graduate students grow in their confidence as they realize that they are the world’s expert in the length of the gap they have chosen to study, and as they hone and expand on their ability to communicate old and new scientific ideas to anyone and everyone.
Graduate students are the linchpins of academic research. They are at the frontline of the gap, spending hours at the bench, computer, and field to wrangle large amounts of data and small amounts of liquid into something interpretable for the world. They are at the frontline of our ‘mind the gap’ campaign, helping convey in the classroom and instructional labs the results and importance of scientific discovery to hundreds of undergraduates, most of whom will not share their enthusiasm. They are at the frontline of our self-awareness and image as a department, reminding us of our obligations, both scientific and nonscientific to all members of society; reminding us often of why we are pursuing new knowledge.
Here in the department, as we start the spring semester of 2022, we have just finished interviewing students for the incoming graduate class of fall 2022. The first-year students are entering their second semester and have made the important decision of joining a lab, which will define the general area of the gap they will be exploring. The second-year students are developing and defending their project goals and approaches as they take their preliminary exam or defend their thesis. And the continuing dissertators are running ahead of their mentors, calling back as they transform the unknown into the known.
As you read through the newsletter and gain a glimpse into the stories of some of our graduate students and faculty, I hope you will share my gratitude and awe for their choice to dedicate themselves to scientific inquiry. This choice, though difficult, makes all the difference to making sure the rest of us have solid ground beneath us.
David and Sandra White Professor and Head of Microbiology