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What E. coli taught me about leadership

by Jessica Hanson

I have a confession to make. As a bacteriologist and a teacher, I was always envious of my humanities colleagues who could draw on literature and history to drive home life lessons in their classes. And while I know that without biology we wouldn’t have authors and historians, the average 9th grader isn’t generally interested in what “germs” teach us about human existence - the plague notwithstanding.

But, the years I spent studying the microcosmos did, in fact, teach me some valuable things about leadership and what it means to live and work in community. So, without further justification, here’s what I’ve learned from E. coli.

  • Many individuals need to show up to make a difference.

Most of you probably don’t know that before you can even see a bacterial colony on a Petri dish, the original parent organism had to replicate a lot! We estimate that it requires at least 10 million bacterial cells forming a little clump before humans can see them as a distinct dot on the plate. Those cells had to do a lot of work together in very close proximity! And this reminds me that, despite the stereotype of the lone genius working away, it’s often by actively participating in a group that we find success.

  • Sharing information can be a real benefit.

MRSA! Mulit-drug resistant TB! Maybe you’ve seen news stories describing how extensive use and overuse of antibiotics is leading to the rise of superbugs. It’s true that humans are applying pressure on microorganisms resulting in the evolution of new traits (more on that in a minute). But that’s not what I want to focus on here. Instead I want to say that one way bacteria accumulate resistance to multiple antibiotics is by sharing genes with one another, resulting in organisms that are both the same as, and different from, the original parent strain. So it’s through true sharing and collaboration, not simple cooperation, that we gain new, synergistic outcomes.

  • Change happens, whether we’re ready for it or not.

There’s a common misconception that groups of organisms WANT to evolve over time. In fact, evolution is a janky process that occurs in response to changing environmental conditions. Organisms that are better adapted to new situations will preferentially reproduce and their offspring will be more prevalent in the next generation. And often, if populations cannot adapt to these changes, they run the risk of disappearing. All of which is to say that change is inevitable, and if we are not able to adapt, we may cease to exist.

  • Failure is often a necessary part of progress.

And finally, there’s the lesson I learned not from the bacteria themselves but from my work with them. Earning a PhD can be a long, slow process, and in the early years I had lots of failures - experiments that produced no results, instruments that didn’t work in quite the way I needed them to, and procedures I had to develop because nobody had done the work before. But every botched investigation provided new insights, and over time I was able to learn things nobody in the world knew before. That’s one of the amazing things about science; on its best days, those of us lucky enough to engage in authentic research actually create new knowledge! And if it weren’t for my errors, and the lessons learned from them, I would not have been able to build a path for those who followed me.

So while Salmonella and Campylobacter may not be Shakespeare and Confucius, they do provide lessons for leaders after all!

To see more amazing Petri dish images, check out Agar Art at the ASM.

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