Practicing Humility in the Sciences

Part of a series of posts written by a team of faculty and students at Calvin University who are developing a curriculum to support team-based research. Their hope is that this blog series will spark a dialog about measures of success that are not typically prioritized in scholarly work and ways this project could be expanded to other colleges and universities, both within and beyond the Christian tradition. This post was written by Hannah Hooley and Rachael Baker.

In our last post, we gave you an overview of our work of building a thriving research team that aims to prepare students to work effectively in team science settings. In this post, we would like to provide an expanded discussion of one of our central practices, humility. 

Contemporary definitions of humility, such as the definition from the VIA Virtues Project shown below, emphasize that humility includes possessing an accurate view of oneself. This accurate estimation of oneself together with appreciating the values and differences of all things aligns with an understanding of humility from our faith tradition in which humility is second only to love as taught in the Bible, emphasizing relationship with God and others (see Yonker et al., 2017). The Greek word (tapeinos) that Jesus and the apostles used when calling followers to humble themselves “conveys the idea of having a right view of ourselves before God and others” (see Thomas A. Tarrants of the C.S. Lewis Institute on “Pride and Humility”). It suggests the importance of being honest and realistic about who we are as individuals and in relation to others as members of a community. 

The VIA Virtues Project describes humility this way:

True humility involves an accurate self-assessment, recognition of limitations, keeping accomplishments in perspective, and forgetting of the self.

In addition to encouraging individuals to examine how they view themselves, descriptions of humility often prompt individuals to consider the ways that they view and act toward others.

Being humble is considering others as important as yourself. You are thoughtful of their needs and willing to be of service.

Humility, having a right view of ourselves and others, can have a profound impact on relationships that exist within communities, whether those communities are families, communities of faith, or professional medical or scientific teams.

Practicing humility can be particularly challenging in environments—such as research and health care settings—that are competitive, prioritize reputation and prestige, and have a hierarchical structure. Think about a young scientist that has been offered the opportunity to give a talk at a conference or a third-year medical student who is presenting a patient during rounds. It is likely that one of their biggest fears is being asked a question they cannot answer. What will others think if they admit a gap in their knowledge?

If we want students to practice humility in their current vocation as students but also in their future work in team science settings we must clearly articulate the value of assessing yourself and your accomplishments accurately, recognizing your limitations, appreciating the contributions of others, courageously admitting errors, and asking for help when needed with the goal of improving your skill and understanding. We must also provide opportunities for students to practice humility in team settings and reflect upon their experience.

In our curriculum, we discuss the practice of humility and the role of humility in faith traditions. Students are then asked to look for the role humility plays in their current setting and intentionally practice humility themselves. As a team, we then unpack their observations and reflections and discuss how what they learned might apply in future situations in which they find themselves.

After spending a week looking for examples of humility and practicing it themselves, one student reflected that:

There were a couple of times this week when some of us made mistakes or had issues in the lab. Instead of trying to fix it themselves without knowing what they’re doing, or wasting time trying to work out something they didn’t know how to do, they came to the PI [Principle Investigator, e.g. faculty] and asked.  When they did, the PI helped, and things went back to running smoothly much quicker than they would have if there had been no communication. I think it takes humility and vulnerability on the part of the student to be able to ask for help and to admit when they are wrong. Similarly, it takes forgiveness on the part of the PI and other students involved, to forgive mistakes.

Some of the things this student noted about learning more quickly and becoming a better steward of time and money in the lab demonstrate how focusing on professional skills through these practices can improve efficiency and productivity in a research setting.

Another student’s reflection was focused more on how the practice of humility could shape their engagement in a future career. The student explicitly discussed humility in relation to courage because our curriculum teaches students that practicing humility is a courageous act.

As a researcher who will potentially run hundreds of failed tests, it will require a lot of humility to admit what was wrong each time and to learn from it… Besides these individual things, humility and courage practiced by team members will enhance the team functioning as they will be more willing to admit mistakes, willing to learn, or simply even ask for help. When one person knows what they lack, it is easier for them to learn that from others in the team, similarly… courage and humility can lead to a good balance… helping the entire team learn better and ultimately perform better.

Our qualitative research of student reflections has demonstrated solid understanding and application of humility. One of the most important things we have learned as we develop this curriculum, however, is that it is difficult to teach practices effectively without also modeling them for your students. We will be hosting a training workshop for our faculty research mentors in which we will assist faculty in thinking about how to implement these practices in their research settings in preparation for engaging their students in our curriculum this summer. We will talk more about faculty vocation in our next post and conclude our series on Team Science and Christian Practices with a post about faculty training.

References

Yonker, J. E., Wielard, C. J., Vos, C. L., & Tudder, A. M. (2017). Teaching humility in first-grade Christian school children. International Journal of Christianity & Education21(1), 55–71. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056997116671727

NOTE: The image at the top of this post is from a photograph taken by Phillip Medhurst (August 2011) of a stained-glass window in Rochdale (Clover Street) Unitarian Church in England and was designed by Edward Burne-Jones. Medhurst’s photograph has been cropped. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


TS & CP (Team Science & Christian Practices): Our team vision is to create a community at Calvin where the low-profile aspects of science (such as student training, mentoring, and collaboration) are valued alongside the high-profile aspects (publications and grants). We believe that being at a Christian university provides us with the unique opportunity to explore how our faith could improve our ability to train students and participate in team-based research projects.

Julie Yonker (pictured far left) is a professor of psychology and public health. Her research focuses on positive contributors to health and well-being as well as religiosity and virtue development in emerging adulthood. The TS & CP team also includes Hannah Hooley, Rachael Baker, and Amy Wilstermann (pictured left to right). Hannah Hooley is a student, majoring in psychology and social work. She plans on pursuing her MSW and working with substance use prevention initiatives in youth. Her research assistance on this project has been invaluable. Hannah also works in the Service-Learning Center of Calvin University. Rachael Baker is an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry. Her research focuses on mitochondrial rare diseases and what they teach us about the genetic basis of hearing as well as ways to serve and support the rare disease community as scientists. Amy Wilstermann is a professor of biology. Her research focuses on the molecular basis of mitochondrial rare diseases. She and Rachael are co-founders of the Rare Disease Network, a collaborative initiative focused on bringing members of the rare disease community together to learn from and support one another.

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