Greg Borzo
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

As a professor, I strive to help my graduate students and post-doctoral scholars to be productive so we can get results and they can get the most out of their experience.”
—Jean Greenberg
Associate Professor in Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology

As students progress through advanced-degree programs and postdoctoral appointments, many find themselves developing a new working relationship with their professors, one that goes beyond pedagogy to produce world-class research.

After getting his PhD in Korea in 2004, Ho Won Jung was eager to find a post-doctoral position to continue his research in plant biology. That same year, Jean Greenberg, Associate Professor in Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology, found a mutant Arabidopsis plant that was very susceptible to pathogens, suggesting its corresponding gene might play a role in the plant’s immune system.

“This work could lead to the discovery of the compound that plants express to induce plant immunity, which was the Holy Grail in the study of plant biology,” Jung says. “Her work overlapped nicely with my main area of study, which was to identify previously unknown signal components important for plant resistance, so I contacted her—by snail mail—asking if we could work together.”

Soon afterward, Jung became a postdoctoral scholar in Greenberg’s lab. He and Greenberg started getting interesting data, which led them to a different branch of research and the discovery of a natural compound and protein that help prime a plant’s immune system. Their research was published in Science this spring.

At Chicago, faculty members routinely recognize graduate students and post-docs for their work, creativity, and intellectual contributions, whether it’s being noted as lead author on a study, being named in a patent application, or being supported in planning and executing a scholarly conference.

A testament to the close working relationship between Greenberg and Jung is the fact that both their names appear as authors of the Science paper and on the patent application that resulted from the research.

“As a professor, I strive to help my graduate students and post-doctoral scholars to be productive so we can get results and they can get the most out of their experience,” says Greenberg.

Bringing Edge and Inspiration

Over the years, graduate students across academia have increasingly gained both responsibility and recognition. Graduate students at some schools used to be treated like inexpensive “lab labor,” according to Howard Nusbaum, Professor in Psychology. “They were simply told what to do, and professors were not deterred in their thinking by anything like a student’s interests or ideas.” Yet he says, “today, most faculty members respect their students and derive much of their own inspiration from their interactions with them.”

“Graduate students are integral to the quality of academic life here,” says Richard Rosengarten, Dean of the Divinity School. “They bring not only energy and fresh perspective, but great intelligence and often some very welcome edge to our work.”

Rosengarten noted a Divinity School tradition in which students plan and run conferences through the Martin Marty Center. Sometimes such events have results that go beyond lively discussion.

“To take one example, the 2001 conference ‘The Sacred and the Sovereign’ included a remarkable printing of the major documents governing the moral norms for international conflict. In addition to its immediate value to conference participants, it has become a teaching tool for courses across the country in the ethics of war,” says Rosengarten.

Building on a Tradition

Luping Yu, Professor in Chemistry, worked closely with his students on the development of a plastic solar cell for portable electronic devices that was the subject of a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Yu quickly credits his graduate students, in particular, Yongye Liang, who is the lead author and is named in the patent application for the invention, called PTB1.

“Yongye did the work and provided significant intellectual content so, of course, he should get credit,” Yu says. “I benefited as a graduate student from professors who shared their ideas and gave me credit for my work, so I certainly want to continue that tradition.”

For his part, Liang says he and Yu work so closely together that it would be difficult to say who came up with which advancement along the way. “That’s Dr. Yu’s style,” Liang says. “He has lots of new and creative ideas. Our role as students is to pick them out, work on them, modify them, and perhaps improve upon them.”

Liang, who expects to move on to another post-doctoral position at another university, had no problem taking the lead writing the solar cells paper. “It was easy,” he says. “It helps when your research results are good.”

Originally published on May 18, 2009.