Jeff Chang | Faculty | Minneapolis, MN
Botany and Plant Pathology | Student Learning and Success Teamwork Award
F.E. Price/Agricultural Research Foundation Award for Excellence in Research
Outside of Work
I enjoy camping with my family. We have two teenage children who are both very busy with extracurricular activities. Camping is an opportunity to be together in scenic locations where I learn more about their thoughts and life outside of the home. I enjoy listening to music, which always plays while working. I have a large collection of over 4,000 songs from about 120 artists on my music device. I listen largely to rock, indie rock, and folk rock but sometimes venture into classical music and opera. Students are often surprised that I listen to contemporary music that they listen to. My new hobby is bread making. I figured that because I work on microorganisms, I should learn how to cook with them. To date, bread that I have made and that I consider edible includes (some) artisan bread, western-style buns, rolls, and Chinese buns; my wife makes the stuffing for the Chinese buns. These include both savory and sweet goods. The list of less palatable items is more extensive.
Every Organism Counts
My research program studies plant-microbe interactions. We focus largely on bacteria and seek to understand the mechanistic, evolutionary, and ecological bases for their interactions with plants. Within this area, my program is quite diverse. We study various bacteria that can be defined as biocontrol organisms, pathogens, and mutualists. We tease apart mechanisms by which pathogens infect plants, mechanisms by which bacteria fight each other, products that bacteria make that can antagonize others, as well as the evolutionary and ecological drivers that shape plant-associated bacteria. We develop computational and molecular tools for analyzing and detecting disease spread. I am also expanding my research to include pathogens of other organisms and other plant-pathogenic organisms. Method-wise, my group employs biocomputing, molecular biology/biochemistry, genomics, and population genomics. I'm not sure “choose” is the correct verb. I stumbled through life and discovered the field. I, like many students, started college, not knowing what I wanted to do. As described below, my employment as a support person in a plant biology research lab sparked my interest in research and led me to pursue a Ph.D. in genetics while studying molecular plant-microbe interactions. I have remained in this field for several reasons. The research community is phenomenal. Science is fascinating. We have opportunities to discover new fundamental life processes and translate findings to help society. Also, early on, I learned that I am squeamish working on animal systems.
The Different Roads
University of Minnesota (BS), University of California, Davis (Ph.D.), University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (Post-doc). Collaborators in Brazil and Taiwan. The most valuable part of these experiences was being integrated with the cultures of different parts of the US and the world and working with diverse people. It is the people that make my experiences so profound. They have given me a greater perspective of the world, helped me learn tremendously, and build a network of colleagues and friends. Regarding fun experiences, I think the most fun was during the entire Ph.D. and Postdoc times. I had the wonderful opportunity to work in very large research groups and learn from highly motivated and knowledgeable scientists who freely shared their expertise and time with me. In my current position, there are so many moments of fun. The most profound are working in collaboration, seeing a researcher make a new discovery or be recognized for an accomplishment, as well as seeing students outwardly express “Aha moments” when they grasp a concept.
I started in 2006 and to me, the most important help from AgSci was being supportive but “hands off”. It is comforting knowing that a college is there if I need help. In the past, AgSci helped tremendously to resolve a difficulty that was outside of my control, and currently, AgSci is supporting me through its strategic advantage initiative. Through this support, my colleagues and I are building upon the computational tools we developed to advance ways in which we detect and diagnose pathogenic microorganisms. It is also wonderful that AgSci gave me the time and space to self-learn my position, and grow into it, and continues to give me the freedom (and support) to craft my career directions.
Development is a continual process and personally, I would like to expand and diversify my research directions. This requires new (or additional) ideas and importantly, the time to think, plan, and test various ideas. The greatest challenge I currently face is finding the time to do so. Research and teaching both require deep (slow) thinking, which requires long periods of uninterrupted time. However, we are continually deluged by minutiae. Each of these minute demands is perceived as requiring little time, but given their volume, they add up. More importantly, responses to these demands require fast thinking and cause our brains to lose focus, distracting significantly our ability to think deeply. In other words, these demands force us to devote much of our time to reacting as opposed to being proactive in planning our research and teaching. I have developed a work structure to address this issue. I work many hours a week and ensure that each day includes a large block of time where there are no distractions. I plan my days around deep-thinking activities and react to other needs once my capacity to think deeply has been exhausted or significantly disrupted.
While as an undergraduate student, finding a job as a support person in a research laboratory. In retrospect, I must have exhibited traits that were desirable. Soon after starting, the senior researchers started involving me in their research. They trusted me to work with radioactivity and do Southern blots, sequence DNA (back then it involved radioactivity), transform plants, clone DNA, maintain their valuable plant culture collection, plant and “bag” plants in the field, etc. This lab also allowed me to do a research project for an undergraduate honors thesis. There were two crucial outcomes for this defining moment. First, the researchers in the lab and three neighboring labs were a community that helped me feel I belonged. They included me in many social activities and multiple researchers took me under their wing and taught me important skills. This experience taught me important lessons for constructing my own research program and classroom environment. Second, my experiences as an undergraduate researcher positioned me for success as a Ph.D. student. I learned the importance of perseverance, independent thinking, and learning from mentors. I also gained a foundational understanding of the scientific process as well as molecular plant biology techniques, which made me less hesitant in forging ahead with experimentation.
There are several words of advice: 1) life is an adventure to be enjoyed; remain flexible, 2) mistakes that you and others make are crucial for learning, 3) most people in our profession are thoughtful and helpful and want people to succeed, 4) think broadly and be prepared to integrate knowledge from diverse fields (in other words there is great value in all subjects that we learn; for research in the life sciences, essential subjects are all subdisciplines within the life sciences, computer science, statistics, math, chemistry, physics, and communication), 5) continually reflect upon experiences, and 6) in school and in our profession, positive outcomes emerge when we invest ourselves in the processes of learning and discovering.