Story behind "A covert operation by a plant pathogen"

The stories behind “A covert operation by a plant pathogen” by Chang and Tabima (2016).


            In this article, co-authors Chang and Tabima provide their perspectives on the experiences of working together to author the published preview in Cell Host & Microbe.



Our life experiences shape us and I wanted to use “A covert operation by a plant pathogen” to recognize the impacts that people had on me. In 2014, I was in the midst of changing the structure of my teaching to one that is framed around active learning, a concept that I learned a few years prior, from colleagues, Lori Kayes (Integrative Biology), Indira Rajagopal (Biochemistry and Biophysics), and Linda Bruslind (Microbiology). I and colleagues, Dan Rockey (Veterinary Medicine), Virginia Weis (Integrative Biology, and Tom Wolpert (BPP) were discussing methods to promote active learning in MCB637 (Molecular Host-Microbe Interactions), a graduate course that we co-teach. Virginia suggested the use of a graphical abstract, a medium that limits the use of words to summarize primary research findings, as a teaching tool.

Javier F. Tabima (PhD student in BPP) was a student in the 2014 MCB637 class. The high levels of engagement and enthusiasm of this particular class were remarkable. It was therefore not surprising to witness a similar level of activity during the team exercise of designing graphical abstracts to summarize the assigned paper. The quality of Javier’s drawing really stood out to me and I was struck by his skills. Along these lines, the creativity of many of my students have left impressions that are also forever burned in my mind. Students have done interpretative dances (DNA topology) and used simple lab items to build three-dimensional models (bacterial type V secretion system) in order to engage other students and explain complex topics.

In 2016, I was invited to author a preview for a manuscript accepted in Cell Host & Microbe. My gut reaction was, “Geez, more work.” My thought was, “This is a great opportunity to highlight our field and Javier’s skills.” With Nik Grunwald’s (USDA/BPP; Javier’s mentor) approval, I invited Javier to participate. I realize when a faculty member invites a student to collaborate, that it may not be viewed as an invitation because of the potential to perceive a pulling of the “privilege and power card”. I am a member of his committee, but I felt safe because we have an excellent working relationship. I gave him a very basic framework for my interpretation of the article to be previewed and asked Javier to produce a graphical abstract. After a number of exchanges, Javier produced the beautiful work that is now published. The text was also not written without help. I tapped into the wisdom of Bill Thomas, who graduated with a PhD from my research program and has an amazing breadth and depth of knowledge, to identify a metaphor that we used in the preview article.

In summary, there is synergism when we listen and work with others, regardless of how they are “classified” and the criteria we consciously and subconsciously use to classify people. Ironically, in order to interact effectively, collaborators need to either respect, or be completely oblivious to, any perceived barriers. Secondly, the influence that students have on teachers is often ignored. The impact is as powerful as the influence that teachers have on students. Lastly, it was striking how much I learned from doing what I make my students do. Graphical abstracts are exceptionally effective active learning tools. Designing them forces one to understand the material, learn methods for simplifying complex topics, encourages collaboration, and stimulates creativity, a very important element of research.



I have been drawing since I was in middle school. I draw as a hobby to help simplify complex concepts, express emotions, and communicate my thoughts to others. I also doodle (a lot) to maintain focus during class and meetings. It is correct to assume that the latter has caused some trouble with certain professors and peers. However, if I rationalize my actions, my constant doodling is forgiven, as long as it is not disruptive. Despite my constant drawing and doodling, I have never considered it a skill that would contribute to a product that benefits my career in science.

I have interacted with Dr. Chang for much of my PhD career. I was a student in his MCB554 and MCB637 courses and we collaborate on research projects. He is also one of my committee members; I immediately wanted him as a committee member after I had taken MCB554 (I mention this because in the US of A, being first is apparently a big deal). As a student in his courses, I noticed that Dr. Chang was not distracted by my constant doodling, but rather, seemed interested in it. I cannot recall the drawing I made for MCB637, but I am nonetheless grateful that it made a strong enough impression for him to present me such an amazing opportunity. 

I was working in my office, addressing emails, when I noted one from Dr. Chang, with the subject line: “Help with a drawing”. This was an unexpected email, but it piqued my interest in knowing that my drawing skills were requested by a faculty member. Upon reading the email, I had assumed Dr. Chang wanted a traditional scientific illustration, but during our meeting, he instead suggested I design an illustration in the spirit of a comic. I was very excited to be given the freedom to express my creativity and happy that my hobby would be used to produce a bona fide science paper. At the same time, I was quite nervous because as a paper, it is a permanent document that could be cited!

This was a very enjoyable professional collaboration that resulted in a product that I am proud of. I was happy to break away from tradition in order to show to the public that scientists are creative and devoted to their work but also share similar cultural interests as any other member of our society.  After all these years of doodling in classes, I was finally given an opportunity to use illustration as a mechanism to express complicated or even abstract concepts in a form that is more relatable and understandable while still being scientifically accurate and perhaps geeky.