Terrence Bell, Assistant Professor

Terrence Bell graduated with a PhD from the Department of Natural Resources Sciences in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in 2013. He is currently an Assistant Professor at The Pennsylvania State University.

Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences?

I knew I wanted to go to grad school for a long time. I started my undergrad in an English program, but quickly switched over to biology (the stories were just more interesting!). I had done a Master’s degree at the University of Western Ontario where I focused on microorganisms and how they were responding to ecosystem manipulation. But I really wanted a project and lab that had the tools to allow me to look at these systems in a more detailed way.

I was driven by questions of how we can figure out what soil communities are capable of doing and how we can modify them to meet certain human-directed goals. I searched a bunch of labs across Canada and the US and found that the labs of Dr. Charles Greer and Dr. Lyle Whyte appealed to me the most. Their labs gave me the opportunity to explore community manipulation in the context of pollutant remediation, and there was also the opportunity to work in the Arctic, which was one of my biggest dreams.

Q: Did you receive a lot of support throughout your PhD?

It’s hard to comment on this, because in some ways, I had a very different experience than many people at the Macdonald campus. Most of what I experienced was at this separate satellite facility (NRC-CNRC Montreal). I did come to the Macdonald campus for courses and certain events like my comprehensive exam. There were things related to career development, for example, that I feel I didn’t really have access to. But we had so many great technical support staff at the NRC, that I felt I got a lot of unique technical training on equipment that others didn’t have. So I feel like I got a lot of support in that way.

Q: Who were your most important mentors during your PhD?

Both of my advisors provided support in different ways. It was helpful to be able to move back and forth between them, because Lyle had much more of a basic science perspective, whereas Charles was more focused on how our research fit in with government needs and regulations and other applied issues. That dual perspective has been really important for me, and is something that I carry with me today.

However, I would say that one of the most important people in helping me develop as a researcher was a postdoc in my lab, Etienne Yergeau, who is now an Associate Professor at INRS Armand-Frappier. He trained me in many important ways, such as how to start working with sequencing data when I had no computing background. He was a really important person for helping me get off the ground and for helping me think about how to come up with interesting research projects. I still do collaborative projects with him at times, and he continues to answer the ridiculous questions I have!

Q: Was there any mentorship that you wished you had during the PhD?

I don’t know if it would have been better or worse to have had more formal guidance in developing research questions when I first started. It taught me independence, for sure. But it was an area I had to figure out for myself, especially at first. The other thing was that, because I worked with a lot of new computing tools, there were basically zero courses to help with training; it was just a lot of figuring stuff out on my own.

One of the courses that I teach now is one that I developed, to try and give graduate students extended practical experience using sequencing analysis tools. You can take these small workshops on how Python works or how R works, but then if you’re not using those tools regularly, you’re starting from zero again the next time. It’s a real challenge.

Q: What were the biggest challenges for you during your PhD?

I think one of the biggest challenges was the isolation. Coming up with research projects from scratch was also very hard. I didn’t understand how to do that at the beginning. Coming up with a project that is interesting and well-designed isn’t something you just know, it’s a learned skill. Part of that was just reading a lot—you figure out what’s been done and what hasn’t. I had a lot of discussions with Etienne trying to figure out: what is actually an interesting idea? And not just for me, but for the field as a whole. Is this a practical thing to pursue or not?

Another big challenge was the two-body problem—my wife was also doing her PhD at McGill, and she was on a different timeline than me. When I finished my degree first, I didn’t think I would be able to find a postdoc in Montreal that I was interested in, but I received a great opportunity to work at the Botanical Gardens with Marc St-Arnaud for a few years. That allowed my wife to finish her PhD, and we synced up our timelines. The fact that there are so many major research institutes in Montreal, with people working on similar problems, actually made it relatively easy to find that next job.

Q: What is your current position?

I’m an Assistant Professor at Penn State University’s main campus, which is in University Park in Pennsylvania. My job is focused on soil- and plant-associated microbiomes, specifically those related to agricultural systems. We research a variety of topics, but one of the applied directions of our research is thinking about biological products and what leads to products surviving in some soils and not others. What kind of ecological traits are responsible for these differences? What leads to a microorganism being a generalist or a specialist? And what tradeoffs are involved?

Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences has an Extension program that allows faculty and staff to leverage research to provide applied benefits for farmers and people in the community. This includes activities like evaluating disease risk, trialing agricultural additives, and other projects or events that directly contribute to farming productivity. It’s also very cool for developing a research program, because the university has this network throughout the entire state. There are many different types of crops and products and it’s easy to connect with farmers and people doing all kinds of research.

Q: How did you end up getting the professor position?

So I did that postdoc at the Botanical Gardens in Montreal, which was focused on phytoremediation. I then moved to a lab at Cornell University that allowed me to transition to more agriculturally-focused work. I got the position I currently have several months after starting at Cornell. I’ve found that in the US, job postings are a bit different than they are in Canada. They can be very specific, so sometimes you have a better sense of what they’re looking for. When I saw the ad for this job, I knew it was exactly in my wheelhouse. The other thing that was really nice was that they were very supportive in finding positions for both myself and my wife at the university, as we were both at the stage of our career where we were looking for more permanent jobs.

Q: Is there something you wish you knew before you started your PhD?

I think when you’re in a position where you have a very open ended research project and you could do anything—at least I had this tendency—you want what you do to be really big. You want to identify this gap where you’re going to do this one project that’s going to change the world and that’s going to change the whole field. That’s really not what you need to be doing, especially early on—you need to be saying, okay, here’s where people have got to with this particular idea, and I need to go a step further than that. Sometimes you will come across things that are sort of bigger gaps and you have more of a chance to have a big impact with a project.

But I think when you put too much pressure on yourself to try to make this incredible contribution—and people go into grad school because they want to have an impact on the world and they want to do something important— it’s difficult to accept that you have to do that in steps. You have to do that in steps, and you can’t change everything with this one project. I think that’s something that I would tell myself—to relax about it. That’s something that I felt a lot of stress about and felt like I didn’t know how to do something that was as important as I wanted it to be. Just know that research moves incrementally and that everybody is contributing to something that is important in aggregate. You don’t have to have every project you do changing the world. 

Terrence reflects on what he wished he knew before he started his PhD.

The other problem is if you decide a project is not interesting anymore, and maybe you want to move on to another project. But the thing is, if you just moved on, you aren’t learning that super important skill of completion. For example, finishing my first research paper was the most important thing that I did early in my career, as it changed my perspective on how research works. If you don’t get over that hurdle of completion, it’s very difficult to get used to the way research works. So I do think that worrying about whether a project is important enough or cool enough can sidetrack you from the development you need to make in terms of learning those sorts of skills.

Q: Do you have any last pieces of advice to share?

A big driving force in me deciding to join the particular lab I did for my PhD was that I really wanted to go to the Arctic. It almost seemed silly, like why should I be choosing based on this? Obviously other aspects of the lab were important to me and fit my goals, but going to the Arctic was one of the most memorable experiences of my entire life. I think it’s great to pursue things that you’re super excited about, even when those things seem small or less important. Being super excited, for whatever reason, keeps you going when you’re not feeling your best. And you won’t always feel your best!

Many thanks to Terrence for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find him at his lab website.

This interview took place in May 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.