Lessons from Plants: A Conversation with Beronda Montgomery

A conversation with Beronda Montgomery

Recorded April 6, 2021

Beronda Montgomery is a Foundation Professor at Michigan State University in the departments of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Microbiology & Molecular Genetics.

The Montgomery Lab pursues a common research theme of understanding how individuals perceive, respond to, and are impacted by the environments in which they exist. Primary research efforts of the group are focused on the responses of photosynthetic organisms to external light cues. Additionally, Montgomery pursues this theme in the context of effective mentoring in research environments.

Beronda is a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has recently being named one of Cell‘s 100 Inspiring Black Scientists in America.

We invited Beronda to join us to celebrate and discuss the publication of her book, Lessons from Plants. This fascinating book combines Beronda’s two research interest: how plants explore and optimize their environments to grow and thrive, and how lessons from plants can help us as we make our way through life and form social structures that support the progress of others.

We discussed Beronda’s own life path, how she came to study plants and the science of mentoring, her advocacy work, and what we can learn from plants.

Montomery lab at MSU

Montgomery, B.L. (2020) Planting Equity: Using What We Know to Cultivate Growth as a Plant Biology Community. The Plant Cell 32: 3372–3375, https://doi.org/10.1105/tpc.20.00589

Twitter: @BerondaM
Instagram: beronda_m

Joining Beronda in conversation were Mary Williams (Features Editor, ASPB @PlantTeaching) who is also a passionate advocate of plant lessons and mentoring.

Katie Rogers (Community Engagement Administrator, ASPB, @ktlrogers) hosted and moderated questions.




[Katie] Hi everyone and welcome to the next webinar in our Plantae webinar series my name is Katie Rogers and I’m your host for today’s webinar. This webinar series is brought to you today by Plantae, the open online community for plant scientists powered by the American Society of Plant Biologists. I would like to give a special thank you to all of our ASPB members who are attending today your ASPB membership dues help support and make these webinars possible. For any of you who have not yet joined ASPB, you can join today and use the discount code Webinar10 to receive a 10 percent discount on registration. ASPB members get early access to these seminars. You can learn more about ASPB and the opportunities we provide at aspb.org.

Before we get started, I’d like to go over a few things just to make sure you get the most out of attending today’s webinar. If you are experiencing technical difficulties, please let us know about those using the chatbox or email me at krogers@aspb.org. If you have questions for our guests please add them to the zoom question and answer Q&A section. We will moderate your questions and share them with Beronda periodically. If you have trouble connecting or need to leave the webinar early, know that a recording of this webinar will be made available along with all of the associated materials within a few days. Follow our Plantae YouTube channel to receive notifications when new content is posted.

Today we are joined by Beronda Montgomery. She is a foundation professor at Michigan State University in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Microbiology Molecular Genetics, it’s a mouthful! The Montgomery Lab pursues a common research theme of understanding how individuals thrive, respond to, and are impacted by the environments in which they exist. Primary research efforts of the group are focused on responses of photosynthetic organisms to external light cues. Additionally, Dr. Montgomery pursues this theme in the context of effective mentoring and research environments.

Beronda is a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She has recently been named one of Cell’s 100 Inspiring Black Scientists in America. Beronda has been a member of ASPB for about 25 years. Between 2009 and 2017 she served on the ASPB Minority Affairs Committee and she is currently serving as a Plant Cell Editorial Board Reviewing Editor. Beronda was a plenary speaker at the 2019 Plant Biology meeting and she has also been featured in Plantea’s podcast the TapRoot.

She has been really active in the plant science community and today we’ve invited Beronda to join us to celebrate and discuss the publication of her book “Lessons from Plants.” This fascinating book combines Beronda’s two research interests: how plants explore and optimize their environment to grow and thrive and how lessons from plants can help us as we make our way through life and form social structures that support the progress of others. Today my colleague and I Mary Williams will be here to have a conversation with Beronda. We’re going to learn about how she came to study plants, the science of mentoring, her advocacy work, and what we can learn from plants. Don’t forget to share your own questions for Beronda in the Q&A section.

All right, so to start off with we would first like to say congrats on today’s book launch. Will you share with us a little bit about how you first became interested in studying plants and what inspired you to write this book?

[Beronda] Yeah so the the kind of pathway to studying plants was not a logical or linear one. As an undergrad I was a Biology major at Washington University but I was pre-law and planning to go into law school. I had made that decision really early in fifth grade, I mean at five years old actually, and once it became clear that I loved math and science I slowly evolved to wanting to do biological patent law, but lab classes and doing hands-on experiments got me really interested in the idea of research as a science career. And then I had a Plant Physiology class and that’s where everything just turned towards plants. Now my mom finds this interesting because she loves plants and she thought she had kind of planted the seed but, um, not really.

How I came to write the book? You know the the path to this book was quite interesting. I love to write but the idea for for writing this book came when I met my editor Janice Audet at a conference. I had given a opening keynote at the American Society for Microbiology conference talking about my beautiful cyanobacteria and proteins, all the science nitty gritty, and out of that she said, “Have you thought about writing a book?” and I just had the conversation with her to see what had led her to even ask that question, but then got very excited about the idea of spending some time with plants outside of the context of writing technical papers about them.

[Mary] I love in the preface of your book where, I can’t remember the words exactly, but you describe your family as being a bit puzzled…

[Beronda] Yes I was a little a bit of a odd character, so one of my favorite pastimes was these logic puzzles, you know it’s like I love those logic puzzles and I did all kinds of experiments in the house and so they really didn’t know where they got this kind of inquisitive curious little person, and I was the youngest so they were really like, “How did this happen, we thought we had this thing figured out and here she comes.”

[Mary] But but they didn’t, they didn’t squash it. I mean that’s just wonderful because so many little kids who maybe, you know, don’t fit into the family box, you know, get detoured into something completely different and your family was able to support you and nurture you and let you be who you are which is great.

[Beronda] Yes that’s one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me is that, I’ve talked with them about this, how they, I saw it as them seeing, you know, a strange fire. And instead of blowing it out because it’s fearful, they guarded it and just tried to keep me from harming myself with it, but they guarded what they saw as a flicker and really supported me. My mom took me to the library every Saturday because I needed new books and new material and new research and every Saturday morning we went to the library. And when I started taking math classes at the university in middle school, after work they would drive me there in the evening. So they really were very dedicated to cultivating the unique interest they saw.

[Mary] Well you know, we were going to ask you about where your passion for supporting people comes from, but I think we just got a little glimpse of that. You had a family that nurtured you and you sort of turned some of that outward. But real quick I want to just say something to the people who haven’t read this book yet, about what this book, what my take on this book was, and then maybe, well actually let’s have your take first. Tell me about your book.

[Beronda] Yeah so the book is really what I consider… You know, I’ve spent much of my career, nearly all of my career learning about plants, but I also spend a lot of time reflecting on the things that I’ve learned about myself from studying plants. I think I was trying to remember when I first started sharing what I consider lessons from plants but I think it was in a group I was in a mentoring collective here on campus and a lot of the people were in the social sciences and humanities and I was trying to. you know, really connect with them, and also trying to bring my family into understanding why I’ve dedicated my life to this study of the sciences. And so for me it really feeds with my kind of life principle of reciprocity, and so learning about the plants is as important as it is learning from them for me.

[Mary] Yes indeed and in fact the my take on your book is that it does two very different things, and and I’m making the assumption that our audience are mostly plant biologists because we advertised this through our our plant networks, but so half of the book, or half of each chapter I should say, talks to the public about things that we as plant scientists know and love about plants. I my experience it’s a very modern take, so you know the old school maybe they didn’t really appreciate how truly aware plants are of their environment but you present that in every chapter, a different version of the fact that plants really are amazing organisms, right? And I love that about your book because over and over again we meet people who don’t even, you know, fully recognize that plants are alive and they’re very alive in your book. They’re, you know, monitoring and integrating and communicating and that is brilliant and I’m so happy that you’ve done this, and I really would love every teacher to have a copy of your book so that when they have to talk about photosynthesis you know the students don’t go…. [makes face] “Plants are boring!

[Beronda] Yeah no that was I think, you know that point you make I’m so glad that you reflected that back to me because that was really important to me that it’d be a book that the public could engage with, but also plant scientists would look at this and say “Yes, this is the science we know, and that she’s inviting people into all the intricacies and complexities and beauty that we as plant scientists know of plants.” And I do recall you know, I went to my son’s class when he was in elementary and middle school primarily because they were doing the photosynthesis talk, and the teacher said, you know, “This is one of the things that we know pretty much everything about.” And my son, being my son, raised his hand and said, “That can’t be true, because my mom talks about photosynthesis all the time, and the people at the PRL talk about photosynthesis,” so I was invited in and it was fascinating to get the kids excited about it, and I do think that’s what I really wanted to accomplish with this book, was to invite people into the pure enthusiasm and curiosity I have for plants.

[Mary] Absolutely, and that completely comes through. The other half of each chapter, though, is the lessons from plants [holds up book cover to camera, showing title “Lessons from Plants”. (Holding up book to camera) I don’t know if that’s backwards?

[Beronda] No. it’s not it’s not.

[Mary] And that’s the part that I think you know, for our community, I want to really spend a little time talking about, because boy, the way the way you reflect the world of people in this book, through the lens and filtering and thinking about them through the lens of plants, really hits me hard because I think that we as plant scientists are really good about thinking about plant science, but we are not very good in general, right, this is a gross over simplification, but we’re not very good about communities and making structures that nurture people. And I remember a few years ago you wrote a book, an article in a journal that was about nurturing plants, right…

[Beronda] Yes

[Mary] And what you said in it, which I still think about all the time, is that if you have a house plant and it’s sitting on your windowsill and it’s not doing well, you say “What about the environment is causing this plant not to thrive?” Right? So we don’t do that with each other!

[Beronda] Yes, yes, yeah, It’s you know, it’s the thing that is most fascinating to me, is that most human beings expect that plants should grow. If you have a plant in your environment, you expect that it should grow, and if it doesn’t you really do go about asking questions about the environment, or your own caretaking skills.

You know I describe my mother as having a green thumb, and so you know that in general impressed me, but the point you made, as I look over the years, of all the knowledge we as plant scientists hold, and the fascination we have with the impact of the environment on plants, I thought we should really be leading the charge in terms of building environments of support, you know really focusing on making sure that the environment is in tune for everyone to have the potential to grow; granted we have different potentials, but having the potential to grow. And so I did start to think that there’s a lot of knowledge in this for the general public, but I think there’s also a lot for us as plant scientists to think about how we can apply all of this wonderful knowledge we have to cultivating our communities with other humans as well.

[Mary] And, you know, because you’re reflecting it to us as “This is something plants do,” I think it’s a little less intimidating, right? Because yes, we’re afraid of social scientists! [Laughs]

[Beronda] Absolutely. And I think to your point, it’s less. you know, intimidating for us, but I’ve also found that it’s a powerful tool for starting conversations with social scientists and others as well. And I think part of it is because much at the core of a lot of my work is a real lens of social justice and cultivating equity, and those are difficult conversations to have, because whether it’s about race or gender or socioeconomic status, when we get into those conversations, most of us, our fear is that we’re about to be judged for holding, you know, a position that’s not politically correct. And so you can really go deep into the conversation when you’re talking about plants. It’s charming, people are really with you before you have to tell them, “No, you’re the one who’s not taking good care of the plants,” and so it is a way to really get into difficult conversations before it becomes personal.

[Mary] Interesting, interesting. Katie I don’t know if you’re able to watch the chat?

[Katie} Yeah, I have been watching the chat and it’s really cool. Everybody’s saying where they’re from, so we have people from Italy, from Germany, Massachusetts, oh wow India, Jordan, all around the world, which is always really great. Here’s “Best alumnus ever!”

[Beronda] Is that UC Davis?

[Katie] I think that was from Liz Haswell.

[Beronda] Oh, that’s Wash U., okay I’ll take that too.

[Katie] Katarina she says she can completely relate to “everything changed when she took plant physiology” and I nodded when I saw that one come through, because it is definitely something that happens …. I feel like in my own experience too, I didn’t understand how cool plants were, and then once you’re open to that it’s like, “okay well here I go.”

[Beronda] Yes, yes. Oh, Clark is in the chat! Clark is my PhD advisor he’s the best.

[Mary] You wrote two essays, you shared two essays this morning, one of them them was in Elle magazine!

[Beronda] Yes, yeah that was really cool Yeah, I’ve had some cool opportunities to be invited to reflect on “Lessons from Plants” from the public, and that particular one was really meaningful because I did get to talk about my dad who passed away in October of 2019, and anyone who knows me really well knows that anything you think about me in terms of greatness or being really good, I was that much of a “Dad’s girl,” so that was tough, but it was really touching to to be able to write about how I walked through the pandemic and how plants were such an important part of me kind of processing the pandemic and the loss of my father, and seeing the hope that plants have really inspired. All across every social media platform people are growing plants and talking about plants, it’s really been quite fun to watch that. And I was joking, my dad would be thrilled to be a model in Elle magazine, so there was also that of being able to get his picture there.

[Mary] Yeah, I haven’t been home for year, continuously, ever, and you know I have a dog and so walking the dog through the same three fields several times a week, just watching the plants yes throughout this continuous year, that was well, the silver lining right?

[Beronda] Yes, absolutely.

[Mary] The other one that you released today was on your blog and for an academic that really, really was very impactful, and you talked about, well I’ll let you you say what it’s about, but my favorite line from this is, you know, you didn’t want to be put in a box, right? “Boxes turned on their heads become platforms.”

[Beronda] Absolutely, yeah, you know it’s been interesting, because no one in my family is in academia, all my family’s in either healthcare or business or something like that, so I didn’t know any professors coming into this, and most people would say that that’s probably a hindrance that you haven’t had a chance to know, but for me it was freedom, because I didn’t have any preconceived notion of what anyone I knew well and held in high regard would think about how to do this career, so I entered it trying to figure out how to make it what I wanted to be, and I immediately met the well-intentioned advice and mentoring of “how you have a successful career as a plant scientist.” And it never really felt like it fit what I wanted to accomplish.

So the piece I wrote today was really about how sometimes the institutional imagination, or what the institution imagines as success for your career, can feel limiting, and I’ve had to really intentionally prioritize my own imagination for my career. I remember when I first shared with a colleague, not even in the plant sciences, that I was going to write this book, the first question was “How is that going to count in your department and in your college?” And I literally said, I don’t care,” and I’m glad Clark is on the line because he will know, he heard, this like “Well I want to do this, I don’t really care, we’ll figure that part out.”

But I really had a strong sense of why I want to be in this career, and every time I try to get put into a box, I just can’t stay in it, I have to get out, flip it over, and say, “What is this platform for?”
So every accomplishment: tenure, promotion to full, moving into administration, it’s been not about me standing on the platform as an individual for self-aggrandizing, but really to say “What can I use this platform for,” to draw attention to what I think these spaces should be.

And more than me, I think a lot about how the work that I do in mentoring and leadership in this book never would have come to be if I had just listened to what I should do. And I immediately start thinking, “What else are we missing for people not having the encouragement to really bring their unique perspectives and skills to the table?” And that’s one thing I really think would transform institutions, but we have to have leaders who see that as valuable, and encourage that and reward it. Otherwise you depend upon people like me who buck the system, and that’s sometimes a rarity I think.

[Mary] Absolutely, and I want to get back to that, on how you’ve done that, but there’s a bunch of questions coming through. Let’s give Katie a chance to give us some of the questions.

[Katie] We’ll start with this one. This one’s from Liz Haswell, she says “A student in my plant biology class said to me recently that he went from thinking of plants as objects to thinking of them as organisms. This made me think of the way we “other” so efficiently. I love your thoughts on how we can keep from “othering” plants as biologists, and of course how we can keep from “othering” others as people.”

[Beronda] Yeah that’s a great question. No, it’s interesting because I think it might have been the podcast I did last week or something I did recently someone said they noticed that I speak of plants as “who”, and I hadn’t even heard that so much myself. They said, “You’re much more likely to say ‘who’ than ‘what'” and I really do think of plants as organisms in my community. And for me I always come back to the fact that they can exist without me and I cannot exist without them, and so why am I more valued than they are? So I think it comes to really understanding the interdependence that we have with other organisms, and then recognizing that the interdependence makes us a “we,” not a “them” and “us”.

So that’s how I really think about plants, as not an “other” but as interdependent. And so I also think of my communities that way, and I’m very intentional of trying to think about how my success came to be. So even if I, you know, get an award, I can’t get that award without my team and so we have to celebrate as a team. And whenever they say “Okay, you got this award we want a reception,” my response is “Let me see when my lab’s available, so that we can show up.” And, the work that we do as a lab can’t be done without the office staff who processes the HR forms to get people appointed to jobs, and so I really try to intentionally think about how anything that I see as “my success” falls apart without being interdependent on others. I

think that that allows me to always try to enter the space and think about what’s the “we” in this not what’s the “I” and “them”, but what’s the “we.” So I think when we do that, even around people, it starts to break down, hopefully, some of the barriers that we allow ourselves to erect around, you know, who we are in terms of where we come from: “I’m southern, You’re from the north, I’m Black, You’re white, I’m woman you’re man” you know, and all of those kind of kinds of things. I think I try to focus on interdependence.

[Katie] One of the next questions we have, and again for our audience you’ll notice that there’s an option to upvote questions, so this one’s at the top of our list. “Unfortunately plant science”, this is from Hamid, “unfortunately plant science has been a white people’s game for a long time. Could you please talk about your struggles as a Black plant scientist with lack of representation and how we can make the field more diverse?”

[Beronda] Yes so the first thing I will say is that representation matters. For many people, they can’t imagine being what they can’t see. I think about the times where I have been fortunate enough to be invited to give a platform talk or plenary talk at one of the big conferences; often in the exhibit halls and the halls of those convention centers, women of color, Black women, women of color, students of color, come up and say how important it was to see me up there – independent of what I was talking about – how important it was to see me up there. So representation does matter.

Having said that, I have increasingly met this question of what were the challenges I faced with, “The challenges were the system.” The challenges were not me, I showed up with great enthusiasm, I showed up with commitment to do my work, I showed up with an interest in learning. And occasionally the system questioned whether my interest was genuine, whether my interest belonged to me or belonged to Clark you know, and so the system is the barrier. I talked about this in an interview I did with another magazine when they were asking me what would I say to little Black girls who want to be scientists and I would say to them that the system needs them exactly as they are, and the system needs to adjust to accept all of what they are.

So I know sometimes that’s not a satisfying answer. Having said that, we have to exist in the system that we have, and so I have had a really strong support system, both in and out of academia. I have people I call just to vent, I have people I call to celebrate, but I keep my eye on the fact that most of the barriers that I meet are not about me. It’s not about my deficits, it’s not about my capabilities, my enthusiasm, my curiosity, it’s about a system that wasn’t built for me. It’s a system that was, quite frankly, built for white male land owners and their sons, so it’s surprising that I’ve had success in the system because I’m not supposed to be here. But that’s really my response to that.

[Katie] Hamid said he loved that response, and thank you for for answering that one. Let’s see the next question that we have on the top of the list here is from Sessen Daniel Iohannes (I’m sure i said that wrong), but “Professor Montgomery, thank you for the great insights. In your blog essay you mentioned the “b” index, or how you develop your own academic index. Do you have any advice for graduate students and early career researchers who are just starting to build their academic index?”

[Beronda] Yeah, so I think, you know, one of the things that was really important for me was to build that b index (so that’s the Beronda index) and it was really a response to the ways in which we elevate, prioritize, and over focus on the h index. I don’t want to argue the h index today but that’s my view. And I just remember the first few years that I was an assistant professor, sometimes the annual reviews weren’t quite as enthusiastic as I was about what I had done that year, and you know in having conversations about it I realized they were judging me based on metrics that weren’t even the ones that were critically important to me.

Having said that I always recognize that I’m in a system, and the system has expectations. The question I’ve always asked myself is how to understand those expectations so much that I can meet them even as I’m meeting my own goals. So if I need grants, and I need publications, that’s fine, but how am I doing those in a way that honors who I want to be.

And so it was important for me to set up a parallel process. I have a meeting with the people who I submit a written report to them – I have a committee of supporters, I submit something to them and that meeting is always a week after I have my meeting with the department. Because you know, now I get good reviews. it’s not like I’m scared of those reviews, but still, sometimes the things that the institution values, they’re like super excited and I’m like “Okay yeah, but I’m really excited about this thing over here”. And so I always sit with those people who understand how I’ve defined success for me, and reflect back to me. And it’s not always positive. A couple years ago they told me “You are so off track. This is what you told us you wanted to do according to your b index. You are distracted and either you need to redefine it or redirect.” And so it really is a group who, we serve for each other, to remind ourselves this is what we said we wanted, even as we do what’s expected of us in terms of what the institution expects so that we keep our jobs and our platforms.

[Mary] I want to follow up on that because you’ve talked about how the system is the problem and they, you know, they have these boxes, and they want you to go in the box and be good… You know, you’ve just thrown all that away, but I don’t think many people either have your courage or your skill or whatever it is that has made you successful at this, and I think most people are rather frightened, right, because oh, maybe you’re doing a PhD, and maybe it doesn’t fit – maybe you don’t want to drop out and be seen as a failure, or maybe you’ve already done that and now you’re thinking “I have to get a job,” you’re doing a postdoc, you know, you just you put your head down, you do the work, you don’t kick up a fuss and if you’re lucky you’ll get a job. But I mean, how can we change the system so that people can be their true selves, and of course you talk about the fact that you know that there are certain things that we have to do, but most people are too afraid to even do a little bit of, you know something.

[Beronda] Yes, yeah, no it’s interesting. The answer to that question is in part how I first got into doing much more public mentoring work. So I started doing mentoring work to become the best mentor I could be for my collaborators, postdoc and graduate student collaborators locally, but then I realized that the way I was able to make the first steps towards the career I wanted was that I had mentors who said to me “So I see you’re really fascinated with this mentoring work, but how are you going to do it in a way so that’s not service”, which isn’t valued in most of our institutions. What counts in your institution? And writing papers and grant dollars – those things count.

And so I really started to think, “Which of those things feels least painful for me? I love to write, so I started to write about mentoring and to do peer review publications. And so the institution says they care about peer review publications, so I produced them. And then they said “Well, we weren’t really talking about that kind, we were talking about biochem.” I said, “Well, you said peer review publications, I have brought them to you.” I got to be a co-PI on a NSF grant for mentoring early with one of my disciplinary societies. So I said, “If these are the metrics of success, how do I use them to create space for the work that I want to do?”

And I think that that’s how we change the system that we’re currently in, is mentoring people so that they can figure out how to align their passions with the expectations, and get the institution to see those as valuable. I do believe in institutional transformation, but I believe in figuring out how to live in the system we have while we change it into the system that we want it to be.

And so I think mentoring and progressive leadership, that’s how I moved into leadership, because you can have great mentors, but if the leaders don’t reward and encourage … And so those are critical ways that we start to help people exist in this system, really feeding into their own passions and motivations in ways that the institution needs anyway.

[Mary] Yeah, absolutely, and if everybody who has a slightly different view of what the institution should be gets discouraged and leaves, then the institution never changes right, so we really have to encourage people and support them and mentor them and nurture them.

[Beronda] And I think one of the challenges, and I think the reason it’s worked for me where it’s been challenging for others is that I have a really different relationship with affirmation. I have never depended upon the institution or colleagues affirming me. It’s nice if they see the work, but I always get my affirmation in other spaces, and show up affirmed. I show up and do my work FROM affirmation. A lot of us do work FOR affirmation, and so if we’re doing things that the institution doesn’t value and we’re not affirmed, we throw in the towel early. But because I showed up affirmed and knew this was work that needed to be done, there were years that no one recognized it, and that didn’t bother me. But that’s not always a common way that people are able to engage, so we have to figure out how to affirm people’s work and see the value in it I think to get a broader range of people contributing.

[Mary] I know Katie has questions, but just, I mean, that seems to be your superpower, right? So where did that come from? Was this your your caring parents?

[Beronda] Yeah it did. I wish i had the link, I wrote about this, not in my own blog, but for a blog called um … I forget, I will share the link, but I wrote about showing up from affirmation and not for affirmation, and that started very early for me. My parents allowed me, which was, to be quite frank with you, it’s not common for Black southern parents, but my parents really did affirm who I was. I would challenge them, and as long as I did it (thanks for sharing that link), as long as I did it respectfully, they would affirm that I had an opinion. You know, they would affirm that, “No, we’re not changing the rules, but we understand your need to to have some more information on these rules.”

And so I do think it started early, and I tried to do that with my son. I mean, I overshot I think sometimes because he’s very (laughs) you know he comes …. but I do think I also, having recognized the importance of that, I try to do that in my own mentoring. To really affirm people for their strengths. To speak them out loud in group meetings, because too frequently we only give feedback when we’re not doing things well. But I will say to you, that has been my superpower. Because when people have said “You shouldn’t do that,” I said “Well thank you so much for your advice, I really appreciate that and I shall carry on.”

[Mary] Katie, want to turn this over to some questions?

[Katie] Sure, so our next question, this is from (unclear) from India, and this kind of shifts gears a little bit, but he would like to know “What do you think about plant intelligence? Do you think plants are intelligent? What are your real feelings?”

[Beronda] So you’re going to realize I answer questions very different from what people…. You know what I’m most fascinated with? I’m most fascinated with people’s need for plants to either be intelligent or not intelligent. That’s really fascinating to me. I think that plants are super aware; it depends on how you in fact define intelligence, and so plants get put as intelligent or not depending on how we define intelligence. I’m really fascinated with people’s need… I don’t need for plants to be intelligent, in the way that I understand intelligence, for their awareness to be awe-inspiring. Other people need to call that ‘intelligence”, and so I’m really kind of agnostic about the term “intelligence”, but I believe plants are brilliant; they’re aware and they are awe-inspiring.

[Katie] I agree yeah … and if you want to you know share in the chat I know a lot of people have been commenting there too so feel free to keep that conversation going.
The next question we have here is from Miguel Vega-Sanchez, “Beronda, my question is about work-life balance. How do you coach your team in achieving it, especially when career and personal development can conflict with the day job responsibilities? I believe that developing myself is part of my job, but fitting that into the work week can be difficult.”

[Beronda] Yes, I’m smiling because I always declare that I have amazing work-life balance, and it’s like what I said about intelligence, it depends on who you ask.
But I do think that we have to be clear about what our priorities are and make time for those. I am the youngest of five kids and I always said to my parents “Two of us could lose our minds, they still have backups, right?” I have one child and so I’ve got to get this right so I can have the luxury senior care that I want, and so I’ve always prioritized being a mother over anything else, and so when he was young and at home (I’m now an empty nester), but when he was home it was easier for me to have balance because I had that clear presence in front of me.

But I still do now try to practice balance more as a good example to my team than I do for myself sometimes, because I’m fine working around the clock but I do try. I think for me it’s as important to do good work as it is to model how good work gets done. So we talk about what people’s interests are, we share in those when we can. We talk about what people’s values are and try to prioritize time for those. That’s one of the first questions I ask people when they join, what their values are. One of my team members had a value of being in a sports league that had an annual national conference in August – I told them “We’ll never have to have your committee meeting in august if I’m in charge of it.”

So I do think having conversations about it, trying to help people as much as possible, being clear about the challenges. You know, I remember I learned a lot from being a student with Clark, he was very open about how he was dealing with his family and other things, and so I try to do that as well and model that for people. It’s a challenge though and one of the things that I say to them is that you’re going to see me not having balance sometimes because there’s too much that’s going on in this moment, but then I will self-correct, and I disappear for two or three weeks at a time, and tell them “If there’s an emergency, call 9-1-1,” because sometimes you do have to completely unplug.

[Katie] All right um the next one up here is from Adriana …. (you can tell the difficult names I’ve been getting …. (unclear), nope, got that wrong) But “Is there a lesson from plants we can get, is there any lesson we can get from plants about how to increase our self-esteem and face perfectionism?”

[Beronda] Oh isn’t that interesting. I think about the perfectionism part, only because there’s a tree on our campus that has inspired so much conversation across many faculty from philosophy to others and … there’s a dean of the College of Arts and Letters refers to it as the “resilient tree” because it was struck by lightning so half the tree is gone but it still, you know, has all of its seasons on that one vigorous half. And I think that one of the things that really, you know I’ve said to them, “All trees are resilient but we see the resilience in this particular one.” And I think it’s because we’re used to looking at perfect plants, and when we see something that’s less than perfect, you know, we’re kind of attracted to it and ponder on it.

I think the biggest lesson around perfectionism for me is that there are some areas where I’m not going to to be able to release my perfectionism, but I can’t be a perfectionist across the board. And so I have a list of things I’m very happy being mediocre with. Many of you know I am very happy being mediocre with email. I’m failing at email. I don’t want a tutor, I just want you to forgive me when I don’t respond. And I think giving myself grace in at least some areas relieves some of the stress of feeling like a perfectionist across the board while I continue to work on some other areas. So I think about that in response to that particular question.

Self-esteem? I have to think about that. I think most plants have, you know you look at their beautiful flowers, they’re pretty showy; they have pretty good self-esteem it seems to me. Even Arabidopsis boldly grows where it grows. And so I think that part of it is accepting your purpose and culturing and, you know, really cultivating your purpose, and not comparing your purpose to someone else. Arabidopsis is not rose, but it’s beautiful as it is, and I think that’s what our challenge is, is to say “My purpose is mine.”

I think back to when I first was growing up, I thought I was going to be a poet. I wanted to be the next Maya Angelou, and my mom said, “We don’t need another Maya Angelou we need Beronda Montgomery.” I think that part of self-esteem is really understanding what your unique purpose is, and not comparing that to what someone else’s purpose is.

[Mary] Very nice, yeah.

[Katie] Another one that’s that’s probably related to this, and it’s from an anonymous attendee, but “I am a graduate student from the Philippines. During your early years as a plant scientist, did you experience “imposter syndrome”? If yes, how did you overcome it? What would be your advice to students or early career scientists who are experiencing it?”

[Beronda] So I think I actually mentioned imposter syndrome in the book, because I have a different view about imposter syndrome, particularly for students and individuals of color, minoritized individuals …. So I’ve done all of my training in primarily white institutions, and imposter syndrome never really resonated with me, because most of the people who were asking it about it had judgments and expectations for me that were based upon some skewed views. So sometimes I think we actually impose imposter syndrome on people. And we do this in the ways we ask questions about, you know, when people are doing their graduate applications or applying to REU programs, if it’s a program that’s to promote diversity in STEM, we will ask them “What were your challenges in STEM?” We’re already saying to them “You probably had challenges,” and if they didn’t, they start to think “Well, was I expected to have challenges?”

And so a lot of times the first question I ask people, when they say they feel imposter syndrome, is I try to tease it apart and get at the source of it. Because sometimes, it’s something we’ve done in our environment. It may be something that happened in the family of origin. A lot of time imposter syndrome is much more external than the questions we have about ourselves.

Now, I think all of us have questions about ourselves. I will never forget when I started at the PRL (Plant Research Lab) some of the founding members, Hans Kende and others, said to me, “You know, people have this view of you and you have a different view of yourself.” That’s an internal/external disconnect, and sometimes we label that “imposter syndrome”, but I am really on a bandwagon to get students of color and young faculty of color to ask, “Do you really have imposter syndrome, or are you responding to what’s being imposed upon you externally?”

The bigger challenge I’ve had for myself is that I’m tougher on myself than anybody else. One of the reasons tenure and other things didn’t feel difficult was because the standards I had for myself were so high they were nearly impossible to reach, and that also can feel like imposter syndrome. And that has to be a question of asking, “Why am i holding myself to these standards?” So imposter syndrome is something I’m really wrestling with, because I think we too much label people with that when there’s something else going on in the external environment.

[Katie] Yeah, I like this comment from Rebecca Rosten, she says she agrees about about imposter syndrome. “I started as an art student and on Day One, class one, the teacher said, “Thank you all artists for joining us today, we will be working together to improve ourselves.” That is a great way to start a class. Mary, do you have any like to add, or I can keep pulling from the the question and answer?

[Mary] You do one and I’ll identify one we haven’t covered yet.

[Katie] Okay, here’s one from Serena Lottrick, “Do you struggle with focus and productivity, and if so how do you deal with that? I often feel guilty for having boundaries, like not working after 5 pm, or not working on the weekend, when I’ve been unable to focus during the work day or week, and I’ve yet to find a set of practices that really helps me be a laser focus during the day so that I can get things done while still protecting my work life balance.”

[Beronda] Yeah, I think you know in terms of focus it’s tough, because often the kind of view of focuis sitting intensely for hour upon hours working on something, and I believe in what I call “distractions” as an invitation from the universe to think about what I’m working on in a different environment. So if I’m tired of sitting and I need to go for a walk, I assume that I’m not writing, but most of the writing that I do doesn’t happen in front of the computer, it happens sitting staring at the water, it happens on a walk, because you’re processing things. And so I think that one of the ways I was able to really get to that point of understanding that was to take the data, you know scientists love data. I used to think, “Okay, you’re taking too many walk breaks, you’re taking too many”, but then I would write notes about, “Well, I came back from the walk and had these ideas.”

So, actually walking is a part of the process. Actually moving to a different environment is a part of the process. Now there are times like when a grant proposal is due where I say “Okay, you can’t have those distractions today,” but I think having more grace with ourselves and really reflecting on what’s happening in that time and space. I know Serena – if you come back from rock climbing and you’re motivated to do your experiments, the rock climbing was a good decision. And so I think just taking some reflections on yourself, knowing when it’s a true distraction but knowing when some things are part of your productivity process.

[Mary] Let’s go ahead and take Elsa’s question first.

[Katie] Okay. “So Professor Montgomery, could you please make some comments about areas where you are, and perhaps are not, able to make positive changes to the institution as an administrator. I think we may believe that all is possible, once we reach a certain position, but I would like to hear what your experience has been.

[Beronda] So you know I would just disavow it. All is not possible – all is not possible at a particular moment, all is not possible in a particular environment, and one of the gifts that I’ve given myself is one of the reasons I do so much writing and national work, is that whereas the local environment may or may not be ready for the work you have to do, you can put it out in the atmosphere for someone who is ready. And I think that part of the work is to be at the table talking about what should be done, even if it doesn’t happen and it’s not possible, because then people have made an intentional choice not to do a certain thing.

And that’s as important for me to know as it is to have people completely receptive to the work that I propose or others propose. And so I think sometimes the work is in getting the environment ready for the work, as opposed to doing the work and I’ve really embraced that I may retire before most of the things I think are possible happen, but I believe that they WILL be possible because I will have transformed the ground – others will have transformed the ground. And so I think we have to rethink about whether we see the fruits of our labor, or whether it’s our real goal and our real contribution to prepare the ground for the fruit that will come in other generations.

And maybe I’m just you know consoling myself, but I do think looking back, you know my parents grew up in the segregated south, and I think about all the work and marching and other things that they and their their community did, and they still are waiting on some of it to come. Some of it has come. And I think that that’s given me a view on the long work, even when it’s frustrating in the moment at times.

[Mary] Yeah, you in your book, you talk about the process of secession, about volcanoes and then you have nothing, and then you gradually bring things in. And you have a couple nice quotes here, and one of them is that “We must understand that intervention and intentional disruption may be critical for supporting environments primed for the succession needed to support cultural change.” And I thought that that was great, I think I’m a bit of a bad girl at heart, you know, I like it tearing down things (laughs). But then you also write, “To facilitate equity-minded approaches, mentors and leaders must promote cross-cultural competence and culturally aware practices. To do so they must have a high level of cross-cultural competence themselves.” I’m wondering, okay, we have this barrier before we can get this succession, right? We have people who don’t want us to change things.

[Beronda] Yes, yeah, there’s people who don’t want to change but I think also one of the biggest issues I’ve encountered is that the kind of change that we need, building cultural competence, means that we have to have honest conversations. And too frequently in academia we don’t build the relationships of trust that allow us to have those conversations. And what I mean by that is, if we’re going to talk across race, the conversation is not going to go perfectly. I’m going to make a mistake, you’re going to make a mistake, and usually our relationships aren’t deep enough to survive those mistakes. So you say something that offends me, and my response is, “I’m done with Mary. Mary doesn’t respect me. I’m done with her.” And so we really have to build a relationship so that, you know, I feel relationships with people now that if they say something, I come to them and say I say, “Mary, that’s not really who I know you to be, so I want to explain to you how I heard that, and let’s have the conversation about that.”

So I think we have so much work to do to build the relationships that allow us to have the difficult conversations to build a cultural competence, and I think about you know how many times I’ve been in spaces, particularly this last year, a Black woman in science spaces… Science has shut down STEM, to think about anti-Black racism, I think I’ve had (only) one or two genuine conversations with colleagues about my experience as a Black woman. And I think it’s because there’s this fear they don’t .. well, first of all they know me, they know I’m going to tell them ALL the truths, and maybe they’re not ready for that. But I think we have to build the relationships that we have those conversations and say “You know I’ve been doing this reading… ” But I actually live in this space with you! “What has your experience been?” Because you look at the resume and assume Beronda’s had a great experience in science. And I will tell you, that is not true. But if you don’t ask… well you might know, because I write about it and talk about it.

But I think that we miss those opportunities, and too frequently what happens, many colleagues, well-meaning colleagues, showed back up from that time having done reading, and started talking to their underrepresented students. And that’s the wrong move because the power dynamics left those students feeling that they needed to affirm the learning of their PI, whereas they needed to have a conversation with me so I could say “Well, that’s good, but not quite there.” And so I think too frequently we interact in these spaces wanting absolution as opposed to true growth.

[Mary] Brilliant, brilliant. I’m gonna have to rewatch this video and catch all that, but I really like that (laughter).

[Katie] I just want to mention we have a question on on the question and answer section from an anonymous attendee, and they say, “Are there unknown BIPOC (Black, indigenous people of color) plant biologists we should learn about?” I’m going to leave this one open on the question and answer section and invite all of you listening to add any links there. Thank you to Chris Meyer who added a link to our Changing Climates and Cultures page, I’ll put that in the chat as well. So if there’s any shout outs there, or any resources to share, please do that with everyone.

[Beronda] I learned about a lot of past and present and future last year in Black Botanist week. That was just phenomenal. I have a new little five-year-old botanist friend in the Detroit area because her dad posted a picture with the hashtag BlackBotanistWeek, and so I do think that there’s a lot of inspiration out there, in the past, but I am so excited about the future. Like, I actually believe I’m going to be able to retire and there will be Black plant scientists who are in a department with two Black plant scientists, or you know Indigenous scientists there with another. So I’m really excited about the future, if we don’t mess it up – those of us who are in charge.

[Mary] I have also felt a big transformation in the past year and as you know, we at ASPB are trying to take advantage of this renewed awareness, our NEW awareness perhaps, of how our culture affects people, and I have to say it’s been it’s been a fascinating and encouraging process, and I’m sure that we will be talking more about this down the road. But we’ve got some great initiatives, including the Changing Cultures and Climate initiative, the ASPBForward initiative, and you know I expect to see progress happening, BEFORE you retire (laughter). Before I retire. Katie?

[Katie] Sure um so our next one on on top of the list here is from Yun-Ting Kao, she said, “Thank you for speaking up about pushing the boundary and doing what you envision in your career. How do you explore your interests, and how do you find the courage to explore outside of the box?”

[Beronda] Yeah, so you know, it’s interesting because I haven’t really thought about it as courage. Maybe it is? Maybe the courage is in being open about it. So I will say that the really, the real thing that drives me is just curiosity. I’ve been curious. I read broadly. I read history, philosophy, sociology. When I had my first sabbatical, I was out of the country for a while, I was in other places for a while, and then the last few weeks I had to be back on campus because my son needed to be in school, and I negotiated an office in Sociology, and I spent a couple months just hanging out with sociologists.

So I really believe in reading broadly, thinking broadly, talking to people broadly, getting outside of just talking to plant scientists. But I think that I will.. okay, I’ll embrace the courage, because I realized early that it was a form of activism to be open about the way that I was going about my career. Because most students and postdocs have a lot of interests that we don’t know about because they do them secretly. And so I just decided to be open about the ways in which I was exploring philosophy, sociology, getting outside of the box in one sense, and that has been a form of activism, to show that it’s possible to have a successful career as a biochemist that I was hired for, but to also write papers about plants, to write a book, to give a talk at a conference that’s not about the proteins I’m interested in. And so I do think there there is some courage in saying I’m going to be open about this. I thought about it as activism, but activism is courage for sure.

And yeah, someone mentions Braiding Sweetgrass – it was actually hearing Robin Wall Kimmerer speak at a conference, that I thought, “You know, maybe there’s more than just this one paper I had written on mentoring, maybe there’s more I should say.” And so I’m glad people see it as courageous. I haven’t seen it as a risk, but I have seen it as activism.

Because I never – to be honest with you, I never cared if it didn’t work out. I wake up every day knowing that if all else fails I can go live in my mom’s basement. I don’t want to, but she has a nice basement, and there are lots of beautiful plants in her house, and that really has been the thing for me – when it came down to it, “Am I going to do this or do what the institution says?” I always do what I think is my unique contribution, because I can go home.

[Mary] Yeah, and I’ve seen some suggestions that when people are giving their scientific talk, they talk a little bit about themselves, their passions, their advocacy work, their mentoring, and just show that we’re more than the proteins we study. I hope to see some more of that. Do you have a couple more questions Katie before …

[Katie] Yeah, like I said, I’m going by how many are upvoted, so feel free to go and upvote. The next one here is from Juniper Kiss, she says, “Many congratulations on the book, cannot wait to read it. If you were to put together an exam for academic mentorship, what questions would you include? What would be the minimum requirement to pass the exam? Should students also be taught how to be good receptive mentees?”

[Beronda] Yeah, I think we have to have conversations on both sides of the relationship, because it is reciprocal. You know the questions that I would ask are, “What’s your mentoring philosophy? What’s your motivation for mentoring?” So, too many of us, our motivation for mentoring is actually self-affirmation, and those people should have more lessons before they’re in charge of mentoring other people. So I did write a blog post once, that mentors have to show up healed. Too frequently people look for affirmation, for healing, for all of these things, and mentoring …. mentoring’s not about that. So I really would ask, what are their motivations, what are their philosophies, what have they done to prepare. And, you know, I have gotten over thinking that there’s a right way to mentor, per se, but you have to be open about what you have to offer so that people know what relationship they’re getting into. So all the questions that I’d ask are not about what you’re going to do, but how you show up prepared to do.

[Katie] All right, so I think we’ll do just this last question here, and this is from Sabrina Gilmore, “Hi Dr. Montgomery, how do we keep small graduate student-started diversity groups and clubs productive running longer than the individual who started it?”

[Beronda] Yes, I think that that’s a challenge, you know, for club. It’s a challenge for good mentoring, actually, because we do often have a good champion, of a club or a mentoring approach, that’s there, and if that person leaves the community the work goes. And so I do think that’s one of the reasons I really started to focus on leadership, because I think that clubs have to be connected, particularly student clubs need to be connected, with a good faculty advocate or leader advocate who’s really carrying that message beyond, and who talks to you about the importance of succession planning. So I think good student work can carry on when there’s good succession planning and before that student graduates they’ve started to bring others in, but you also have to have the support of people who can help you have the resources and see that as a meaningful part of your work.

[Mary] Well, you know, unfortunately we’ve probably used up almost all of our time, and I know Katie had some parting thoughts. There’s a lot of really great resources in the chat and we will download that and share it and some excellent comments, so I will share those as well when we post this recording. I want to let everyone know that this book is available widely, Google it and you’ll find it. Follow Beronda on Twitter, I really enjoy following Beronda on Twitter. I have one final question for Beronda, which is, you know, you were teasing us for the last, more than year. telling us about your writing, writing, writing, and I know you’re writing, writing, writing, and I’m wondering, what’s next? How will you surprise us next?

[Beronda] So you know I’ll continue to write essays in public spaces, but I have more books in me. So there will be more, yes.

[Mary] Thank you so much, this has been great fun, and we really appreciate you spending the time with us. You know we’re one of your big communities.

[Beronda] Absolutely, of course, thank you.

[Katie] Yeah this has been really great Like Mary said, there’s a lot of things trickling into the chat and also on the question and answer, so we will save those and we’ll post them with the recording. We have 19 open questions still, so we’ll share those with you because it’s been kind of a whirlwind, so I’m looking forward to to listening back and being able to dig in on some of these, but thank you again for taking your time and thank you all for joining.

[Beronda] Thank you so much, it was an absolute pleasure, thanks.

[Mary] Thank you bye-bye everybody nice to see you all here.

[All] Thanks, bye.




Additional resources shared in the live chat

00:39:22 Katie Rogers, ASPB (She/Her): https://www.elle.com/culture/a35993812/plants-were-my-beacon-of-hope-during-the-pandemic/
00:43:03 Siobhan Braybrook: ^make your own B-index! https://lazyslowdown.com/developing-your-own-academic-index/
00:55:07 Siobhan Braybrook: https://lazyslowdown.com/how-i-work-and-thrive-in-academia-from-affirmation-not-for-affirmation/
01:13:00 Katie Rogers, ASPB (She/Her): https://plantae.org/education/changing-cultures-and-climates/#front-and-center
01:15:59 Chris Firestone: Robin Kimmerer- “Braiding Sweetgrass”
01:21:20 Molly Edwards: Thank you Beronda! 12/10 recommend listening to Beronda’s interview on Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness – I listed while I was repotting my Aquilegia plants and it was amazing 🙂 https://www.jonathanvanness.com/gettingcurious/episode/23643764/are-plants-literal-geniuses-with-professor-beronda-montgomery

Community feedback in the Q&A section

Are there unknown BIPOC plant biologists we should learn about?




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