Building a career in Academia - Dr. David Thoms

April 12, 2024 Raka Mitra, PhD, Dominique Holtappels PhD, Tiffany Mak PhD Season 2 Episode 4
Building a career in Academia - Dr. David Thoms
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Building a career in Academia - Dr. David Thoms
Apr 12, 2024 Season 2 Episode 4
Raka Mitra, PhD, Dominique Holtappels PhD, Tiffany Mak PhD

How do you build a career in Academia? 

In this episode, you will be hearing from Dr. David Thoms on his experience with diversity in academia as a  Junior Professor, the importance of mentorship and peer support, and the ongoing journey in overcoming self-doubt.

Special thanks to Dr. David Thoms for sharing his journey with us.

Music adapted from Blue Dot Sessions.
A transcript is made available for this episode.

Podcast produced by Dr. Tiff Mak and Dr. Dominique Holtappels.

Show Notes Transcript

How do you build a career in Academia? 

In this episode, you will be hearing from Dr. David Thoms on his experience with diversity in academia as a  Junior Professor, the importance of mentorship and peer support, and the ongoing journey in overcoming self-doubt.

Special thanks to Dr. David Thoms for sharing his journey with us.

Music adapted from Blue Dot Sessions.
A transcript is made available for this episode.

Podcast produced by Dr. Tiff Mak and Dr. Dominique Holtappels.


I'm sure you've heard it before.  Academia, it's a journey.  Not only does it start with finding the right college to do your undergrad, or figuring out if you want to stay in research after you graduate.  The road continues with finding the right fit for your graduate or PhD work, and then for some of us, it continues when we start a postdoc. 

And after that?  We might be entering the job market.  We search for a place where we can establish our own lab group and become the professor we've always dreamt to be.  And for a lot of us, this journey is not a straight highway that leads us to where we want to go.  It's a windy and twisty road filled with challenges and self-doubt. 

But how do you navigate all of this? 

Hi, my name is Dominique Holtappels,  and I'm one of the producers and hosts of the Microgreens podcast.  Here, we aim to tell stories of plants, microbes, and the people who study them. 

In this episode, we hear Dr. David Thoms, newly appointed assistant professor at Florida State University. Here, he studies new ideas around the interaction between plants and microbes.

David: I'm thinking about something called toxin triggered immunity, where essentially instead of effectors Bacteria also produce lots of different toxins and toxins tend to be much more potent than effectors. The effectors I mentioned tend to happen or tend to occur in huge numbers, right? So a bacteria may induce dozens of different effectors to induce some beneficial effect for the bacteria. One usually isn't enough. But with a toxin, toxins are much more acute. Even one toxin can cause a huge amount of damage to a cell. 

Dominique: And what is the system that you're focusing on?

David: Well, I've been thinking about the pathogen, but it's really a system using a combination with a commensal, with a beneficial strain. And the cool thing that really got me into this whole project at the beginning was that  when you inoculate the plant with the pathogen alone, the pathogen grows really well, and kills the plant. And when you grow the plant with the beneficial alone, the beneficial grows really well, and promotes plant growth, or at least doesn't kill the plant.

But when you grow 'em together, the beneficial and the pathogen, the pathogen’ s almost like virtually eliminated from the rhizosphere. And only the commensals left.  And I thought that was really cool. I was like, wow, what is happening? Is this the plant doing something? Like it's not, we did a more experiment and there's no antagonism between those two strains, and they're, they're very similar strains, a few things are different, like those toxins, those toxins are, are one different thing, or a couple different things.  So yeah, I'm just like really curious, like how, what's happening with this, like how is one being wiped out and one thriving?  Our evidence points that it's pretty much a plant driven mechanism. 

Don't really know if there's, if it's immune driven yet, but we do know that there's immune response that's induced by the pathogen but not by the commensal.  So yeah, this, so sorry, so I bring that up just to say that there's another player here, and I think there's like a nice little layered interaction between, not just the plant detecting the pathogen, but also the, the commensal kind of helping as well.

Dominique: And what inspired you to do this research?

David: That, that initial phenotype was really kind of inspiring, you know. It was kind of like a big leap because we didn't really know if it was plant dependent. We didn't really know if there was going to be an immune response. It was called, it was just like, oh, maybe there is, let's just see what happens. 

And, uh, I think we got really lucky. Like, we got really lucky in a lot of cases with this system. 

Dominique: Sometimes all you need is a little bit of luck.

David: A lot. 


Dominique: This is very cool, David. But, as you know, with microgreens, we're not only about the plants and the microbes. We also want to learn about the people who study them. And David, I was wondering if you could share a little bit about yourself.

David: Yeah, I grew up, I tell people I grew up in Mississippi. I'm not from there because people are like, Oh, you don't have a Mississippi accent.  It's like, yeah, I mean, my family's from like, I, I was born in New Jersey and we just kind of worked our way down to Mississippi and that's where I stayed like 15 years of my life.

Dominique: And how did you decide to become a scientist?

David: I think I'm kind of, I'm kind of basic. Like, I know I was introduced to dinosaurs as a kid in kindergarten and got interested in science. And I was completely convinced, like, right there in the spot. I was like, wow, dinosaurs are amazing.  And I want to grow up and study dinosaurs.

And I was really disappointed when I found out that they were extinct. And all was left were just fossils. I was like, oh, that's kind of lame. I want to study living things.  And, I think from there, I was like, oh, I like biology. Because, you know, things are still alive.  I'm really appreciative of the NSF 'cause I watched a lot of a lot of PBS growing up. A lot of magic school bus, science guy, Pratts creatures. That's kind of what, you know,  what really got me in the science at least. 

Dominique: And were you already thinking about science during undergrad or maybe even high school? 

Yeah, I mean,  to be fair, I didn't really,  when I was in kindergarten, I think I wanted to work at McDonald's.  There was a long journey between, liking science and dinosaurs and wanting to be a scientist because I didn't really think I could be a scientist. I always thought that was kind of like, you know, like it's trying to be like an astronaut or the president of the United States or an actor. I thought it was something that's just really hard to obtain and, you know, don't worry about it. Just kind of do something  that's realistic, realistic that you see other people doing. Right. So it took a long time before I actually  said, Hey, I think I want to be a scientist. So you know, like after McDonald's, I wanted to be, I think I want to be a veterinarian. And then I said, like, I want to be a pediatrician. I thought that'd be great to work with kids.  And yeah, I pretty much had that goal all throughout  high school, all throughout college.  And I think like my last year in college, I actually decided to shadow a pediatrician  and like she was super great. She let me just follow her around for five days.

Dominique: Oh, wow. 

David: Yeah, and on the fifth day, I was like, ah, where are all the interesting cases at?  And she got really mad at me. She's like, you don't want the interesting cases. Those are the cases where, you know, kids are really suffering, they're born with those sad genetic diseases and whatnot. I was like, yeah, that's true, I don't really want to see that, you know, but I still like science. Like, I didn't feel like I could really get as into science as I wanted to as a physician. So that's where I had to do some soul searching. And luckily,  one of my advisors, which was actually, who was my biochemistry teacher, she was like, Oh, have you heard of this REU, research experience for undergrads. It's a program by NSF, and I was like, no, I've never heard of that. She's like, oh, you should check it out. Apply some, and they'll pay you, even in the summer, and you can do like a two or three month rotational lab. I was like, oh, that sounds perfect. So, I got really lucky, and I got into that, and  that was one big piece of like, wow. I could really like do this for a living, like, I just remember I worked like I think 10 or 12 hours and, you know, I was an undergrad at that point, so I had to be supervised by a grad student, so I think I kind of burnt out her patience, but I'm so really grateful to her for just coming in on a Saturday and just kind of  babysitting me for 10/12 hours. But at the end of the day, I didn't have any regrets. I was like, wow, I think I can really do this. Like, this isn't bad. I've never at that point wanted to like work such long hours and feel good about it, you know? Like, I really, really, really liked it.  

Dominique: And how did you go from wanting to become a pediatrician to actually going into plant science?

David: I had another experience at a research experience at the Lands of Attainable Gardens. 'cause I went to a career night and  there was a panel and there was a researcher from that Pacific Gardens. I went to her and I was like, oh, I think, I think I like plants. And she kind of found that funny  'cause I didn't, you know, I, I had, I had never taken a plant class.  And I didn't really know anything about them, but I was an anti-plant. So she's like, Oh, why don't you come and, and, you know, come to Pacific Gardens, see what I'm doing there. And that was a phenomenal experience because like, she just kind of drove me all over the state of Georgia for about a year. And just introduced me to everything, people in government, people at universities, just different efforts, like scientific efforts, and just to see all sorts of questions that the people are really asking.

Dominique: Oh, wow.  

David: Like, plant science is a legit science, like, people are, you know, they're really asking some cool, interesting questions. I was like, okay, I could, I could be a plant scientist.  I still wasn't hooked just then, but you know, it, it left the possible in a table.

Dominique: Yeah, because it's a big step going from wanting to become a pediatrician to a plant scientist.

David: It really is. And I  just, I think just through pure coincidence, like my first experience, my first few experiences were in a microbiology lab and plant science. And then now I'm a plant microbe interactions guy. Like  it's yeah.  I don't know, I just look back and I'm like, oh, it's almost predictable.  At the time, it didn't really feel like  

Dominique: And so David, I'm wondering, you are a black scientist. What was your journey like?

David: Yeah, so in my last semester in undergrad, I remember I talked to a professor,  And the advice she pretty much told me, because I asked, like, you know, how is it working in academia, like, it doesn't seem very diverse, or, no, what did I say? I think I was like, talking about schools, like, oh, the school I'm interested in doesn't seem very diverse, and she's like, yeah, you know, that's just kind of how academia is, like, you, when you get to academia, you just kind of lose that diversity.  And, you know, I wasn't, she wasn't saying that like, cause she was also like a minority and she was just saying like, that's just the facts. Like, you're not going to find a lot of black scientists and not that it's a good thing, but it's just how it is right now.  And don't let that  deter you from wanting to be a scientist yourself because, you know, you need black scientists. You need more black scientists in order to build up more black scientists.  So I was like, yeah, okay. That's just kind of like, I think it was nice getting that warning in the beginning. And just, you know,  just basically saying like, stay strong, go in it, that's just how it is. You can still be a great scientist, but just be aware of what you're, you know, what the environment's like. 

Dominique: And how does it make you feel?

David: I mean, it's, it's always weird, right? It's,  there is a pretty good effort to try to improve,  you know, diversity in the department. And Tracy, I think, was in charge of that. She did a really great job. I talked to her at like,  I went to like this annual conference, I think it's called ABRICAMS, a medical research conference for minority students. And one of my professors in undergrad told me to go there and it was amazing. It was basically just like, you know, a lot of, young, black and Latino scientists.  Like just trying to get some good connections and show their work off, you know, what they've been working on  And it was really it was really impressive and I talked to Tracy there  and they're trying to recruit, you know  more black scientists, so I think she's really done a great job but I think I might be like even after all that effort I think I might be the  12th  Black scientists to graduate  from the biology department. It's, it's, it's an old school. Twelve is kind of a low number. But I think it's, it's increasing you know, at a pretty good rate because it was like, you know, the first one I think was like in the 70s or something. 70s or 80s. A long time ago. And after that it was like another, maybe 20 years before the next one. I don't know the timeline very well. I know other people know it much better. But it's, it's, there's huge gaps. And it's getting more frequent.  But it just kind of tells you the picture of like, you know, kind of like what I was worried about. Like there's not many black scientists.  So there's always shock and like, you know, the community  doesn't really, it's not really a community there because there's still a few people which I feel like, you know, there's such a big focus on trying to bring people in to improve diversity just for, but it's just a numbers game in that sense. And you can't just throw people into it. I really feel like there should be an effort to not only improve diversity, but to also try to improve community. I didn't let that get me down too much, but I know it could be really, you know, effective with people in general. And yeah, it is something that I feel like should be worked on. 

Dominique: Thank you so much for sharing, David. I think a lot of our listeners are also very appreciative of you telling your story here today.  But now you are starting as an assistant professor at Florida State. And I know that a lot of listeners in our podcast are also interested in a career in academia. So, what was the process like for you? 

David: Oh man, I think I'm the worst person to ask for that. If Cara ever hears this, like, I think I gave pretty much every, every situation I did things at the last minute and she's like, yeah, it works out for you, but I don't suggest you actually  doing things this way every time,  but  like every single time was like the last minute and I applied for this application, I think like the morning of or the night before, how do you want to think about it there on the east coast, and I was on the west coast. So I remember like staying up until like 7am West Coast Time is trying to submit this thing on the deadline just because  I saw this thing like weeks ahead of time and I was like, oh,  I asked my wife, I was like, oh, there's a position in Florida State University. Could you live in Florida? She's like, I could live in Florida. I was like, yeah, it doesn't seem too bad.  Because we wanted to get back to like the southeast. We like the weather and we love the garden.  So I was like, well, I think it's about a year too early for me to apply. Like I don't have my paper out. It's like nowhere near being done. Well, I mean, that's not true. It was, it was pretty close, but it's still like, you know, I wanted to like, my idea was like, if you want to get a PI position, you have to publish and have like, you know, a nice beautiful record and  all that stuff. And I was like, well, I have a paper and I think I could finish it next year. But  I don't know. I think it's just too early to apply.  And she's like, yeah, you're probably right. And I was pretty much just talking myself out of it for two or three weeks until my lab mate, Zaida,  she's like, ah, Florida's beautiful. She's like, is the school good? I was like, yeah, it's a pretty good school. She's like, ah, I would definitely apply. You should apply. Definitely apply. She's like, you already think you won't get it, right? I was like, yeah, probably not. She's like, well, then you have nothing to lose. You won't even be disappointed. So I was like, yeah, that's a pretty good,  that's a pretty good reason. I was like, all right, I'll use this and it'll be good training for my next application for when I'm really ready to get a job next year. And  I told my wife, I was like, yeah, there's probably a 1 percent chance I would even get this.

Dominique: And was there a reason why you were hesitant to apply and pushed it off? 

Yeah, I guess the biggest thing was just my own, like, self doubt, you know?  Just, judging myself and kind of just saying, like, Oh, you know, based on what you have so far, then you shouldn't get this job, kind of thing. And  Yeah, I was just kind of like discouraging myself from applying.

I'm trying to get back in that mindset so I can,  what was I thinking back then? Oh, I did this calculator a long time ago back when I was in grad school. Cause I really wanted to be a PI. And I remember finding this calculator and I plugged in like a bunch of parameters. And  it was basically just telling you your odds of becoming a PI based on different things. And the gist of it was pretty much like, You need an impact factor in total about 40 to become a PI. So I always had that number in my head, I was like, ah, 40, I'm nowhere near 40 right now.  You get that either by publishing a science or nature paper. Or getting like, you know, like four, uh, solid publications or two, you know, really good publications.

So like, you know, I was just thinking like, oh, maybe get four papers of impact factor of 10 or two around 20 or 15. And then one, you know, either, you know, whatever combination you prefer.  I don't think I'm really there yet. And it seemed to be like the biggest, like, at least in the calculator, it had the most influence, it was that impact factor, along with, uh, I think where you graduated from.  So I was like, ah, I'm off to a pretty bad start right now.  So that, that alone was like, yeah, I'm probably not going to get anything based on what I'm working on now. I really wanted to get like a, like a Cell or a Nature paper for my postdoc. Just so I could try to improve those odds, it went, it went completely against my philosophy, I guess, and how to become a PI. Cara told me that multiple times. I just never believed her. She's like, yeah, they're looking for like a person, like a scientist. It's not just a publication record. It's really the whole package. I was like, no, not based on my calculator. My calculator told me how to get, like, a nature paper. 

Dominique: And having gone through the whole process, what would be your biggest advice that you would give to our listeners?

David: Yeah, yeah, but uh, again, like, I don't know, it just, it feels like a lot of luck, a lot of really good mentors. I've never had a bad mentor, and that alone I think is really amazing, because I hear horror stories all the time.  So the fact that every single scientist I've met to this point has been amazing and really helpful and great mentors, I feel like that's a huge part of that and you know being successful. So yeah, no exaggeration pretty much every single mentor I've had was, was amazing. I don't know if that's really answering your question. Basically, I guess the biggest advice I can give is don't turn yourself down. Let someone else turn you down because you just, you never know. 


This was Microgreens, the official MPMI podcast. I'm your host Dominique Holtappels together with Tiff Mak. We would like to thank Dr. David Thoms for sharing his story with us, and Tim Friesen and Tessa Birch Smith for keeping us going.  Music was from Blue Dot Sessions.  We would also like to thank you for listening. 

And do you want to hear more stories about plants, microbes, and the people who study them? Check out our previous episodes, or stay tuned for the next one!