Taproot S2E6: Graduate Student Mental Illness, A Wild-Type Phenotype?

In the final episode of Season 2, Liz and Ivan talk with Jeff Long, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He is the vice chair of the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology department and co-director of the Cell and Developmental Biology graduate program. Jeff has worked on embryogenesis and development in Arabidopsis for most of his career. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin and completed a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology. In 2003, he joined the Salk Institute for Biological studies before moving to UCLA in 2012.

Like episode S1.5, which came out between Seasons 1 and 2, in this episode we do not discuss one of our guests’ papers (although we do recommend you look up Jeff’s many impactful publications). Instead, we talk about a recent publication in Nature Biotechnology regarding graduate student mental health. Over 2000 graduate students from many countries and fields beyond plant biology were surveyed, providing astonishing evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. The authors report 41% of students scoring high for anxiety issues and 48% scoring high for depression. While these data suffer from responder bias, clearly there is a higher prevalence of mental health issues among graduate students than the general population. Postdocs most likely share this trend.

In this study, many students indicate that they feel undervalued and that the Principal Investigators (PIs) in their labs were not providing adequate mentorship, support, or assets to further their career. We explore some of the reasons students might be feeling this way and discuss ways to provide support and mitigate these issues for students. We talk frankly about some of our own experiences and why it is important to think not only about what are we saying, but also how are we being heard.

In this season of Taproot, and especially in this episode, we want people who are facing struggles in their careers to know that they aren’t alone and having trouble isn’t unusual. This is the wild type phenotype for scientists, especially while in training! If you are experiencing depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue, please don’t wait for a crisis! Right now, you can reach out to others for help and together we can break down the stigma associated with these struggles.

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Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature biotechnology, 36(3), 282.

Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868-879.

Ivan Baxter’s tweet regarding this topic; https://twitter.com/BaxterTwi/status/986730085418962944

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The Taproot is the podcast that digs beneath the surface to understand how scientific publications in plant biology are created. In each episode, co-hosts Liz Haswell and Ivan Baxter take a paper from the literature and talk about the story behind the science with one of its authors.

Subscribe to The Taproot podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

Questions, feedback, suggestions?  Contact us at taproot@plantae.org.


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