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#plantbiology14 Wrap Up

I didn’t get much of a chance to sit down and write a post for the last two days of the conference. The schedule called for a party at the end of day 4 and a half-day day 5 that I’ll talk about here as well as my own take-aways from the conference. 

Day 4

The major symposia was on Plant Signaling, which is something I am very interested in, and yet I wasn’t very engaged with the speakers or their content; Ykä Helariutta had some truly gorgeous microscopy images of roots from a new type of SEM called SBF-SEM that allowed for 3-D rendering of root tissues as well as from a confocal microscope; I would love to learn to generate images like those. But his work on determining just how plant cells differentiate their vascular tissues was fascinating (at least in roots; shoot tissues may be different). A lot of it comes down to the spatial differentiation of two hormones: cytokinin and auxin, though the fine details rely on some very fine tuning of gene expression to specify phloem cells (that carry things long distance) and their companion cells that onload/offload things to be transported. The fine level microscopy needed is incredible.

around lunch time, I talked to Mike Sussman, my postdoc advisor’s Ph.D. advisor who told me about his bias against microscopy because ‘the molecule is the thing’ (he’s a biochemist that works on phosphorylation) to which I said, it’s best to marry the two together; the molecules and the microscopy; link the individual proteins to the cells where they’re acting, where they’re modified and if they move around or not.

I got to see examples of this in the root biology minisymposium where 3 of the 5 talks were from disciples of the Benfey lab that have gone on or are going on to start their own labs (don’t get me wrong, they all do great work; it confirms something I saw recently that 60% of postdocs from ‘elite’ or ‘rock star’ labs go on to found their own labs and become proto-rock stars of their own often times; so if you can get into one of those labs…you’ve got a good shot at successfully doing so; I’ll come back to this below). The upshot of the session (I sat through all the talks) was developing tools for studying roots more than actual root biology, though there was some of that too. From microscopy to track the properties of moving transcription factors (Sozzani lab), to realistic soil conditions to enable studying root growth (Ruben Rellan Alverez; starting his own lab soon) to studying the ROS pathway that’s independent of hormonal regulation of primary root establishment (Iyer-Pascuzzi lab), to ethylene formation of adventitious roots (Amanda Rasamussen), and how rice roots store nutrients after stress or ABA treatment (Wan-Chi Lin).

And I caught most of Keith Slotkin’s talk on epigenetics and how DNA methylation is established upon the plant first seeing a transposon it doesn’t currently possess in its genome; it was really interesting though I got lost a bit because he talked quickly and I’m not an epigenetics expert. The question was interesting and one I hadn’t thought of before.

Then there was a poster session (I talked to some people but left early to get my things ‘home’ to get myself to the closing party at the World Forestry Center which was great. And the iConnect team, responsible for digital coverage of the conference got together for a picture:

iConnect Team

Back: Ruben, Carl, Ian, Phil, X, Erin. Front: Molly, Susan, Maria, Kranthi. Photo by Naim, official photographer for the conference using @scato’s phone. Not pictured: (@PlantTeaching, #DaHorvathdp)

Day 5—President’s Symposium

Day 5 is just the president’s symposium where the president of the society each year gets to choose a theme for a symposium, find speakers for it and there you go. This year being the 25th anniversary of The Plant Cell (@ThePlantCell) being published as well as the 90th anniversary of ASPB’s (@ASPB) founding, the theme was ‘Firsts in plant biology’ (did you put an event on ASPB’s time line of historic plant discoveries? It’ll be online too).

Although one speaker had to cancel, the three that did speak were fantastic. It was well balanced with 2/3 being women or 2/4 if all 4 scheduled speakers had been speaking; plant biology doesn’t have anything close to parity when it comes to higher levels of academia (Ph.D.s and postdocs are near 50/50 though it’s been awhile since I’ve checked the numbers; someone can correct me if that’s not accurate) though I think it is better than many fields– a long way to go, for sure, but progress is being made, although the funding crunch scientists are presently under may really harm progress on this front, if only because there are fewer Tenure Track jobs out there. It’s something to be constantly vigilant about, as that seems to be the best way to ensure diverse voices are heard.

There were two epigenetics talks, the first by David Baulcombe (@dcb40) talking about some of his work on post-transcriptional gene silencing, and what underlies it and talked about how plants were the first systems where such RNA silencing was first observed. And took us through his modern day work which is also showing some firsts in plant biology, which ideas and mechanisms first described in plants being also discovered in animal cell systems. Julie Law from The Salk Institute continued on the theme of epigenetics talking about her work on the selective methylation mechanisms plants have and talked about how the first ‘methylome’ ever published was from Arabidopsis. I don’t follow it, but I wonder if there are prokaryotic systems that have epigenetic marks.

The final talk was given by Pamela Ronald (@pcronald), giving her second talk of the conference; this one about her lab’s research into a rice bacterial pathogen and the response to it in rice and the difficult process of tracking down a receptor ligand. The first in plant biology that she cited was the fact that the potato blight of the 1840′s was determined to be caused by a phytopthora species of fungus and Koch, of Koch’s postulates learned of this link and figured out that microbes can cause disease in animals (and came up with assays to determine just that). She talked about how the peptide that the rice pathogen produces that is the suspected ligand is modified post-translationally by sulfination that turns out to also be important for the mechanisms of HIV infection in humans. It was really fascinating and a great way to end the meeting.

Both Baulcombe and Ronald talked about how plant scientists tend to have an inferiority complex when it comes to our work and said that we shouldn’t hide the fact that we work on plants that they’re inherently great systems to work on and have some of the most cutting edge science in the world that has implications for not just mechanisms in all of biology, but also for overall human health. I have experienced this inferiority conference.

Final Impressions

Education matters. How we tell the story of plant science matters. And the community really matters.

Plants are indeed fascinating systems to work on and the modern tools of science are making the exciting biology of plants more and more discoverable; from whole genome approaches to better imaging technologies to populations that allow very fine mapping of markers for desired traits of interest. Of course, I’m not so short-sighted as to say there’s no interesting biology to be uncovered in other systems, even ones not yet explored.

Plants do offer a lot of unique opportunities as they provide things we rely on every day from ecosystem services to food, shelter, clothing, and energy; a list that’s only likely to grow over time as plants can be synthesis factories for a lot of things as well. Some of this conference was devoted to the debate between basic and applied science; a decision I don’t think any science enterprise should have to distinguish; both matter. Basic research, as Marcelo Gleiser (@marcelogleiser) argues in his recent book ‘the island of knowledge’ is to define the shores of our ignorance in order to push them out even further (we’ll likely always be pushing); there’s an ebb and flow of that shoreline as we slowly learn things, correct ourselves and yes, apply what we’ve learned.

The initial discovery phases of any product are underpinned by basic research. And of course, applied projects can make significant basic science discoveries (e.g. Cosmic microwave background). Anyone reading this is likely a plant scientist and knows all of this; yet Arabidopsis is still the only model organism that is up for the chopping block as far as I know (I am all for smarter use of the model; a lot of experiments may not hold true for other plants because we grow Arabidopsis under utterly false conditions often).

We currently live in a very short-term world; nothing should take a long time to develop. Basic research takes a painfully long time to mature into something that could be applied; on the order of 30-50 years. Should scientists be on the lookout for contributions they can apply from their discoveries? Absolutely, but there is nothing wrong with knowledge for the sake of knowledge. The frustration with that as an approach is that it is hard to feel like you’re making a difference in the world; ideally, any project has both applied and basic components, even if it is split 10/90. You never know when someone will come upon your work and make a brilliant discovery because of it (likely, it’ll only be a small piece of that breakthrough, but still, every bit helps; it’s useless knowledge until suddenly, it isn’t).

In the current funding environment, it’s likely that things that can be applied quickly will take priority, and that is kind of a shame. Both Pam Ronald and David Baulcombe talked about pursuing systems you are passionate about; I don’t think I’ve found my applied system yet that I feel I can make a contribution to. Maybe coffee? I am very interested in saving coffee.

Education Matters

To continue from my comments above, It also seems true that postdocs from amazing labs will be the ones to get funded and go on to be successful. In a way, that’s as it should be; success breeds success. Lots of research bang for the buck, which is what we want. As well as very talented people doing science (or people we can train to become talented; growth mindset!). However, if only people from a top few labs are able to get hired, the focus and scope of research may be limited. And schools that serve primarily undergraduates, currently a large supplier of grad programs may have an ever harder time getting funding for their mostly less ambitious research programs; I’m sure the people at the funding agencies do their best to balance research and education; the two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive to begin with, but it just seems like we’re living in an increasingly tiered world where a very few top labs produce the most research and leave the rest of us out in the cold (great if you’re one of those labs; or a lab that can collaborate with them). Competition is good; but I feel like what we have now is too competitive and may end up in what a cell biologist might call an apoptotic event for the entire scientific system. Again, I have no trouble with great labs doing amazing things that we end up often hearing about at conferences like Plant Biology. I just worry about the crowding out of smaller research programs, especially those form PUIs. Big science, is, well, big these days; and we’ll likely all be doing it at some level sometime soon, but I’m not so sure the resources are there for every lab, independent of its size, to do that RNAseq experiment (the crash in sequencing costs/base may continue, but to do a full on experiment is still expensive). I know that these are more systemic concerns within academia as a whole, but they affect us in the plant biology world too. Competition is good. Hyper-competition I’m not so sure is. I don’t know where that balance point is, but it seems like science as a whole is moving towards the latter.

The two major symposia sponsored by Monsanto, The Plant Cell and, Plant Physiology all highlighted messages of public education and awareness (which is necessary, but not sufficient as Nathanael Johnson (@SavorTooth) pointed out). The speakers weren’t there to tell us that feeding the world would be a challenge; we know that; but to give us data and perhaps a narrative to help communicate that message to others who aren’t so aware. Robb Fraley (@RobbFraley) talked about some of Monsanto’s latest projects/products and vision and Pam Ronald talked about how to integrate ecologically minded farming with GM technology. Like it or not, GM is controversial (even though it’s far from the only thing Monsanto produces). Part of the controversy is just that Monsanto is a large company. Robb Fraley flew into Portland on a private jet and flew out again soon after his talk. That’s some Bond Villain level activity right there. Or he has a demanding job that likely takes place in many cities all at the same time and Monsanto can afford a jet to enable him to do the work he’s obviously passionate about (I would love to tour Monsanto to see what it’s like; I’ve never been despite living in St. Louis for my Ph.D.). However, as a large and resourced company, Monsanto might have an even bigger responsibility to being environmentally friendly and encouraging farming practices that leave a lighter footprint on the planet (the scientists there, at least, are on board with this, I’m almost certain). Things like the two symposia really are important for getting the message of plant biology out to the world, it broadens our scope.

The Community Matters—iConnect with Plant Biology

Covering the conference on Twitter was great. The core group of us, the iConnect team tweeted up a storm. But that was only half the point. ASPB is embarking on a digital futures initiative to provide tools and connections to other plant scientists. Right now, even though we’re a community of mutual interest in plants, the links seem fairly loose and there’s still a lot of ivory towers/silos that exist. I envision a tighter community that will connect in real life as always, but also digitally. The end goal is to create a much better megaphone to communicate plant science as a whole to fellow plant scientists and build the membership, but to communicated it other audiences as well (various segments of the public, government, industry, etc.). It’s a new project and a big undertaking, but we’ve planted the seeds at least.

Final, Final Thoughts

I had a good time at #plantbiology14 even if I felt like I missed a lot and maybe could have done some things better (networking, getting noticed). I hope all the attendees did. There are some truly amazing plant scientists doing great work at all levels with projects at all stages of completion. Talking to a friend, she was saying plant biologist’s inferiority complex actually harms us because we’re a lot harsher on one another’s work; it has to be perfect before any of those animal people even get a glance at it. Perfectionism is no way to go about life, I’ve found. I’m still fighting those tendencies (I want to be excellent, but not to wait for perfection because it will never happen). I don’t know if that’s the case in the entire plant world, but from what I’ve seen, there’s a lot of good work being done. And the world needs a strong plant science community to work towards agricultural and environmental solutions to the world’s problems. It’s great to do the work and apply it, but two other keys are education and communication about plant science to relevant communities. And of course, paying for all of this won’t be easy, but I think a lot of it starts with a strong, diverse, and large community that has strong links to one another.

The World Domination Summit (WDS) coincided with Plant Biology this year in Portland. WDS is a conference of largely small business owners/startups that are trying to create socially/environmentally responsible companies that are going to be the next big thing (their founders think so anyway and most really do seem to want to put all the effort they can into creating a successful business). I follow it a bit though have never been (they are a community of people with positive voices that work for me, something I needed to hear a few years ago), and one thing they did one year was have everyone sing Journey’s “Don’t stop Believing”; something the band (The Nines, from Seattle, they were great) at the Plant Biology closing party played too, by request. The challenges we face are huge, but together, we can create a better Earth to live on.

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The “Flipped” Classroom Teaching Strategy

A key benefit of being a member of ASPB, at least for me, is that we have access to several activities to enhance career skills. One of my favorites is the Education Committee workshop. I’ve had the privilege to attend several by now. As a result, my teaching tools box has improved a lot and helped me to be successful in my job hunt. This year, along with several others, I was able to share my experience as a member of the iConnect team.

Workshop participants.

Workshop participants.

The workshop this year, sponsored by the Education Committee, was about a teaching strategy called “The Flipped Classroom,” by Adrienne Williams (University of California–Irvine). She is a project specialist and expert on biology education, particularly developmental and cell biology courses. She is doing outstanding work. On her Twitter account @BioTeaching, she describes her interests as “moving undergraduates from memorizing to thinking in gigantic lecture halls.” In addition, she has a lot of information online regarding what the flipped classroom strategy is, the different combination of activities she has applied, reports about the level of success, and her recommendations depending on the results obtained. You can read one of Adrienne’s recent reports on Introductory Biology and find  more of her tips on flipped classrooms on the UC Irvine website.

Adrienne is a very engaging instructor. During her presentation I was able to share experiences and obtain a lot of feedback from her and colleagues. These colleagues are from different institutions in the United States and other countries, with different class loads and experience. To make our learning experience more entertaining, we sat in groups and discussed our present strategies and why we wanted to flip our class. We concluded that our main concern was the size of the class and how to make it more dynamic and entertaining for our students. We also realized the extra time we would have to spend, but concluded that the benefits outweighed the costs.

One of the key points Adrienne mentioned is that students should be able to use any material and independently learn from them. One example is the use of interactive videos that encourage students to look for information before the class, therefore we could do other activities in class and ideally the material would be covered more thoroughly.

Basically we learned the basics of flipping, Adrienne’s tips for success (she gave us her contact info, so we can contact her directly for advice), the scale of flipping we want to apply, and how to evaluate student performance and success.

Finally, it was also great to see friends met in other workshops. We had a very good time exchanging experiences, advice, and encouragement, as we continue to work to improve our teaching skills.

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PUI, RUI, phooey…

PUI=a category within academia, RUI=a category of NSF grants, phooey=what we say when realizing a session already started.

The Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUI) Networking Event had a great turnout and fruitful discussion Saturday morning. This event is the opportunity for faculty from institutions that award no (or few) PhDs in the sciences to connect and share ideas for maintaining successful research programs. There were about 60 faculty members, 20 young scientists exploring PUI faculty options, and 10 representatives from ASPB or funding agencies.

ASPB has been supporting PUI networking for nearly 20 years and the group continues to provide an opportunity for talking about maintaining successful plant science research at PUIs. This year the group talked in small groups about best practices in managing time, getting funding, and getting recognition for our research with undergraduates. Several funding agency officers shared helpful tips for supporting our research, including the RUI, which is the Research at Undergraduate Institutions NSF program that was designed to support high-quality undergraduate-faculty collaborative research.  The group also explored ways of increasing visibility for high-quality PUI research.

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#plantbiology14 Day Three

Today was a day for personal connections and actually getting an opportunity to see some science talks.

The day began with the second in  series of sessions on the challenges of feeding 9 Billion people, with a focus on not just feeding, but nourishing them successfully.

Poster Section

My poster section, and the hashtag for the conference. My one, contribution to the Plant Biology community.

David Jenkins, Alan De Brauw, and Ricardo Uauy all talked about rebalancing our diets; less meat, more varieties of plants as well as reasons why simple access to better crop varieties is a big part of the problem in producing more food; particularly in the developing world.

There were powerful images of what families had to eat/access too; I think Uauy was the one that showed the contrast of a German family, an Ecuadorian family and one from I think Mali with the amount of food on the ‘table’ diminishing each time and there were differences in food too. It is a solvable problem, but it definitely takes a lot of will power to adjust a diet, especially for those of us in the West where we have plenty of food to eat for the most part (even here though wealth inequality is really an issue). I heard some people complain about how these last two sessions were preaching to the choir (we already know why plants are important, after all). However, as a colleague pointed out, it’s not so much the message as the passionate and effective delivery that was given and the way these speakers talked about the issues of food security and nourishment that was the real point. We as scientists studying the processes (basic of applied) of how plants work don’t often get called upon to speak up about why what we do is so critical (in the short and long term.

The last speaker of the session was the Chief Technology Officer of Monsanto, Robb Fraley who gave a very engaging talk about what Monsanto was doing; the breadth of the projects is really stunning and some of the technology is crazy; they really are investing in the next, next generation; meter by meter farming as Fraley put it. He talked about how the merging of plant science and information technology/computer power was going to fuel a second green revolution. He talked about how Monsanto is not just producing GM crops, but using marker assisted breeding and seed chipping technology to breed the best varieties possible. And GM is still there, of course, but perhaps in more limited use.

Fraley brought up the example of the next iteration of round-up; that’s a current GM tech that does make me uncomfortable and I know that the data say it’s perfectly safe (the consuming part isn’t really an issue; I’m less sold on the environmental impact the technology has; it seems to drive out diversity (as does just the GM crop itself) which is actually a source of resilience for crop plant populations.

I heard that some people felt they were getting industry talking points forced on them, though I think Fraley did a decent job of not just selling Monsanto, but actually focusing on the challenges that Monsanto hopes to be a part of solving. It’s hard to know from the outside just how well any of their combining information technology and crop science works to reduce yield gaps around the globe, but if it works as advertised (does anything?), it’s a pretty good situation to be in. And of course, Monsanto isn’t perfect, their technology isn’t a panacea. There are clearly people who care that work there though. Fraley spoke of being a father and wants to leave his kids a world where food is secure, not restricted.

One thing that was neglected was something that previous speakers (I forget exactly who, sorry!) talked about was the multiple uses of land; food production being only one. There’s the environment to consider too and plants are as key a part of that to our lives as crops are. Truly, no plants, no life. But know plants, know life.

Uauy ened by quoting Goethe:

“Knowing is not enough; we must apply… willing is not enough; we must do”

And posed the question of whether spending time studying a non-crop plant Arabidopsis is really worthwhile; why not study the plants that we actually use/eat. It’s an old argument; focus on the practical, not the theoretical/knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Arabidopsis has been on the chopping block for years, it seems. And I may be wrong, but I think it’s the only model organism for which that is true; no one is talking about killing yeast, worms, flies or mice as reference systems in the animal world. Expanding the scope of research is great. Using new models, exploring new plants, trying to translate what we’ve learned in Arabidopsis (still the most tractable plant model, I think; maybe Wisconsin FSpsc plants are easier/faster) are all great things to do. And we don’t know everything about it, even if it seems that way. Siobhan Brady gave a great talk about her lab’s work in uncovering transcriptional networks in Arabidtopsis and is now applying that work to see if the model they developed in Arabidopsis translates to other crops. Translation is for the short/medium term, which is important, but Arabidopsis is built for discoveries in the long term; 20-40 years from now. I think there should be more resources for diverse organism study, but Arabidopsis is still valuable, I  think.

I went out to lunch and had dinner with old friends. I connected with some people at the poster session. I’m stuffed. After a long day, of tweeting, talking and trying to take as much as possible in, it was an interesting day; lots of great ideas and technoligies are emerging; many developed in Arabidopsis. I think they’ll be good for many systems and hopefully the community can handle diverse organisms of study, but recognize that crop plants and tree species aren’t always impractical in some regards for certain studies/time frames (e.g. doing a Ph.D./postdoc).

I got a ride home from a friend at dinner. Sitting around a table with lots of food was a great way to end a day of science about food security, the culture of food and the barriers we face as humans (beyond the science/technical challenges) to feed the world.

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The Mentoring Relationship—A Two-Way Street

The Minority Affairs Committee luncheon began with an informal lunchtime discussion between faculty and students. As suggested by attendees of a previous year’s luncheon, the setup involved assigning several faculty to each table and allowing students and post-docs to fill the remaining seats. The room was abuzz with discussion for the first portion of the session, at which point Dr. Kimberly Griffin took the stage to discuss mentoring. Dr. Griffin opened by asking everyone to consider how they referred to their primary investigator; attendees suggested titles ranging from “boss” to “advisor” to “mentor”, and Griffin segued into a discussion of traits attributed to each term. Once it was clear that each title conferred a unique set of qualities, she spent the remaining time focusing on the qualities of a “mentor” and the inherent relationship. Based on her presentation, it was clear that good mentoring is critical but not often prioritized. A recurring theme of Griffin’s talk was that a mentoring relationship is a two-way street; it involves effort on both the part of the mentor and the mentee. After asking each participant to list several qualities important to a mentoring relationship, she directed us to circle those most important to us and to cross off those we could do without. This exercise segued into an evaluation of the most important qualities of a mentoring relationship for each of us and an emphasis that each person was different and thus needed to seek an appropriate mentor or mentee. A common pitfall is seeking a mentor who is similar to you rather than a mentor who meets your specific needs. Griffin shared that when beginning a new mentoring relationship, she requires each mentee to send a list of five “must-haves” and five “can’t-stands” to set the tone of the relationship. She concluded by emphasizing that each mentoring relationship is unique and that mentors should not feel pressured to have the same type of relationship with each mentee (and to be transparent about this fact). Although it was structured as a formal talk, Griffin made a point to incite discussion and address questions throughout her presentation, and there was much participation as a result. Appropriately, the session ended with further discussion among individuals at each table.

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#plantbiology14 Day Two

Again, it’s late and I’m tired, so stream of conscious kind of writing that’s quick is happening tonight. I may even be more tired. 

Today at the conference there were two major symposia, one on synthetic biology (making drugs from plant processes/engineering cheaper ways to make medicines) and the first in a series of 2: Feeding 9 Billion (nourishing 9 Billion is tomorrow). It sort of continued on Don Ort’s talk about heat waves and how it’s going to be hard to grow more food on less land.

Both concerned genetically modified organisms, especially the second one (sponsored by Monsanto). And I tweeted up a storm again today.

I went to a minisymposia talk Malia Gehan (@maliadong) gave on the phenotyping robot system they have at the Danforth Center to do mass imaging of plants over time.

I talked to my Ph.D. advisor which was good. I socialized a bit at the iConnect booth. I talked over digital future issues with some DFUG members, including Nate, a guy who develops software at ac company that’s going to help change the website of plant biology, the face of plant biology and indeed hopefully strengthening the community of plant biologists to enable us to do better work to feed those projected 9 billion people in the face of climate change.

I went out with some younger scientists too—the future plant biologists of America/the world, amongst others. It was all amazing!

I was thinking about Brian Larkins advice about competition being your friend; and indeed, it does make us tend to do better, but healthy competition; compete over ideas and work, and make it great, but don’t get to a point of hating anther human. Or try competing by outthinking; collaborate with someone outside your sub discipline that can do something your competitor can’t/hasn’t thought of. I’m not reinventing the wheel here, I’m sure. After all scientists do compete and collaborate all at the same time. We race to get things done before someone else (I don’t, and I’m not a particularly great scientist because of it).

Hearing the talks today, including one from the amazing Pam Ronald (@pcronald) on ecological farming practices, how GM has its place/role within that framework and how to stop the panic about GM technology; in some cases it’s the only thing that can solve the problem (some gross diseases plants get, e.g.).

There are really smart people at Plant Biology. Doing amazing work. Ann Amtmann talked about a stress priming mechanism in plants in response to an early salt stress that then was repeated later and the plant ‘remembered’ it’s first stress event and hyper-responded.

I walked around the exhibitor booths too. The technology out there is impressive. The education booths are amazing too; education is key as teaching is a great way to learn, but also bring along new people who will bring new ideas into the field. We need those too.

So with that, I feel a little optimistic; the young scientists are clever, hardworking and dedicated (while not taking themselves too seriously). In fact, today, I had the biggest case of impostorism ever; what am I doing at this conference with all these amazing people who are doing really fundamental research into plants at many levels (from the not currently ‘hot’ research to the incredibly so). Plants are amazing organisms we need to live, survive and thrive and they’re fascinating organisms with a lot more going on than would meet the eye normally.

So I am a bit more optimistic. There’s a timeline at ASPB that included the 90 year history of the society. I was a rebel and put two on the outer fringes: 1860′s Gregor Mendel and one beyond 2014; “We help feed, cloth and shelter the world.” We have the brains, some great technologies and hopefully the resources (again, competing might diminish this precious commodity) to solve the looming problems of feeding more people on less arable land with lower input of water and nutrients.

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Feeding the World

One cannot imagine anything more exciting than a food security session where science meets one of the greatest challenges in human history, feeding the world, now and in the future. Today’s session (Symposium III—21st Century Challenge: Feeding 9 Billion) commenced with a great introductory talk by UK Champion for Global Food Security, Professor Tim Benton. The severe environmental challenges if the 21st Century where defined, focusing on sustainability.

Some scary numbers and projections, in case you don’t remember, included:

  • To keep up with the growing population we will have to produce more than we ever have
  • Europe wastes more food than the entire Sub-Saharan region produces
  • 40% of food in America is wasted

The importance of the next talk was picked up by Mother Nature herself, sending us a thunder loud enough to cause a moment of silence.

After this truly stimulating symposium we are all obliged to return back to our labs, homes, and workplaces to optimize either the genes, the environment, or the management side of the equation. After all, if we cannot contribute to the aforementioned, simply changing our cravings and diets is already of help.

Keeping in mind Jevons paradox, we have to start looking for solutions before it is too late. Efficiency gains no doubt provide us with time to make the entire economy more sustainable. Fundamentally we have to redefine the problem, divide it, and conquer it. Each one of us can make a difference so crucial and we are here to make another world after all.

And if one doesn’t believe me

Think of this

“If you think you’re too small to make a difference you haven’t spent a night with a mosquito.”

If this session doesn’t leave one inspired, I doubt anything will. I find myself vehemently eager to listen to the upcoming Part B concerning resilience.

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#plantbiology14 Day One

I am writing this at quarter past midnight on day one of the #plantbiology14 American Society of Plant Biologists annual meeting and am trying to blog each day about my experiences/ perspective. Just know that this was written quickly because I need sleep for day 2! 

I arrived what I thought was early this morning at the Oregon Convention center only to discover that the lines at the registration desk were already long and I first talked to two strangers in the last name R-Z line and then met someone I knew only from Twitter (@JPhilipTaylor) from Monsanto, which was cool and always fun. I got my transit pass, and t-shirt and put up my poster in the poster hall, got my free Quartzy networking cards (look pretty good, if big) and left some in an envelope by my poster as well as some 3×5 cards for people to leave me notes/ask questions or leave an answer to a question I wrote on one (this is an experiment to try and make my poster more interactive. The whole time, I tweeted. I found my way around the convention center, got a second cup of coffee, then some tea and went to the PUI networking event; a group of people who work at PUIs or are interested to work at one (if I can get an academic job, this is the kind of institution I’d want to work for; however, landing that academic job is hard/nigh impossible).

One thing that was brought up is that it’s not as possible to do the cutting edge research, the so called ‘hot’ areas that an R1 institution can and so that can make it harder to get funding and sustain a research program, let alone balance it with teaching. It’s complicated. I think this thought set off the theme of the day for me; just how kind of out in the cold from the rest of the research community PUI researchers (and they are researchers) can feel compared to the R1 system. PUIs provide a lot of grad students to R1 programs (I’m a product of one!).

The first talk fo the day was Harvey Millar, from Australia, and Stephen Hales prize winner (sorry if I have that wrong; no research tonight) talking in depth about plant respiration and mitochondria. Later in the session, Nathanael Johnson talked about how to solve the controversy over GMOs (and how it has little to do with the science/facts or even GMOs themselves). He talked about the solution being building trust, a community, a solid relationship (as Seth Godin might term it ‘the connection economy’) to bridge the gap.

Don Ort and others in the abiotic stress session talked about what could be summed up as ‘Winter is coming’ (climate change, higher CO2, more severe weather) and that will affect plant yields which is already a problem and will likely only get worse. Feeding 9 billion people is a challenge, a huge one and we need a strong community of plant scientists that can build trust with consumers of food/agriculture/plant products to solve it.

I ended the day at the iConnect Tweet up which was a lot of fun. We had most of the people who tweeted during the day there talking, connecting and bring taking pictures of people holding up pieces of paper about why they got into plant biology in as few words as possible (it was really great in the moment; and I think a really cool project ASPB should spread around the membership/collect pictures of us).

PUIs are still research institutions and can be the slow, steady, quieter ones doing research that isn’t necessarily rushed out the door (haste makes waste); more conscientious, instilling curiosity, learning and contributing to an environment of scientifically literate thinking. While R1s can focus more on the bleeding edge (PUIs can be collaborators here, no doubt) and really delve into the dynamism that is the plant world in a high throughput way (is there going to be a point where any grand funded absolutely must be systems biology level?). There does seem to be a divide, a disconnect right now, one that doesn’t serve the plant research community that well it seems to me (and perhaps I’m overstating things; I could be wrong here; one reason twitter is great, we can all share our perspectives).

I learned today that Monsanto and BASF collaborate on projects; using one another’s technological strengths to bring different products to market (ID your own target genes, but use one another’s technological expertise). I’m not sure how smooth theses collaborations are, but it seems like a very good way to better leverage resources. I don’t know if there’s an academic equivalent, but it would seem that there’s more that could be done to foster that kind of work (yes, I know, collaborations happen ALL the time; however, I think more could happen to share things with one another; I’d never heard of Harvey Millar & his many impressive collaborators until today; I’ve been too locked within my Ivory tower sub-discipline).

Twitter is great for broadening horizons, networking, and learning new things/getting feedback; as are many digital networking tools. And after today, I’m more convinced than ever that building a strong, interactive community is going to be one key to solving the problem of feeding the world and making our planet resilient/sustainable place to live for us, and our descendants; I went out to dinner today with people from Washington U. I did my Ph.D. with; most of them had kids, so do many people I know at Monsanto. One thing a lot of us have in common.

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The first day of the ASPB meeting, 2014 included the major symposium on abiotic stress control in plants, presenting insights on the broad range of abiotic stress that impacts plants from extreme atmospheric conditions and availability of micronutrients; with discussions on recent experimental approaches in laboratory and fields to overcome those hurdles.

Dr. Michael F. Thomashow, the first speaker of the session talked a bit about his work on CBF pathway and cold acclimation of plants, the process by which plants increase their freezing tolerance in response to low non freezing temperature. Dr. Thomashow is acting as a director of MSU-DOE plant research laboratory at Michigan State University. CBF cold-response pathway is a highly conserved regulatory network comprising the CBF genes and the CBF regulons (CBF target genes) that impairs freezing tolerance. Expression of these regulons leads to increased levels of sugars and proteins with cryoprotective properties that can contribute to an increase in plant freezing tolerance. He also discussed about a new line of investigation studying photosynthetic acclimation to low temperature. When Arabidopsis and other chilling tolerant plants are exposed to low temperature, the rate of photosynthesis initially drops. In addition, the photosynthetic efficiency of leaves developed at low temperature is much greater than those developed at warm temperature. He talked about the photoperiod regulation of the CBF pathway and how that is regulated by PhyB under long and short period of days.

The second speaker of the session was Dr. Donald Ort, Robert Emerson Professor in Plant Biology and Crop Sciences Global Change and Photosynthesis Research Unit, USDA/ARS Departments of Plant Biology and Crop Science, from the University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois. He discussed about the gradual CO2 elevation, the elevated heat waves and effects. Human activities are altering the composition of our atmosphere (CO2 and O3), affecting the Earth’s climate system (elevated temperature and water deficits). High temperature is a cause of yield gap and can act directly by inhibiting photosynthetic processors. Dr. Ort discussed how his group is investigating the effects of atmospheric change on photosynthesis and canopy energy balance, as well as the interaction of increased atmospheric CO2 and drought.

After a refreshing coffee break Dr. Steve Howell, from Plant Sciences Institute, Iowa State University, spoke about their work on the Unfolded Protein Response (UPR) and how that can protect plants from stress. UPR acts as an alarm system when the plant senses harsh conditions. Different environmental stresses, such as heat stress and salt stress can activate different transcription factors and his group focus specially on factors responsible for untethering the stress transducers from the Endoplasmic reticulum (ER) in response to stress, how they are transported from the ER to the Golgi apparatus, how they are proteolytically processed and relocated to the nucleus and participate in the formation of transcription complexes to activate target genes.

The session was concluded with an excellent speech from Dr. Mary Lou Guerinot, Ronald and Deborah Harris Professor and Associate Director, Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program, Dartmouth College Hanover. Her goal is to ultimately understand the functional connections between genes, proteins, metabolites and mineral ions. Out of more than 100000 EMS mutants they identified one mutant which is iron tolerant. As a result of the study her group hypothesized that plants might store irons in their vacuoles like yeast. As part of a multi-investigator project, Guerinot is using ICP-MS [inductively coupled spectroscopy-mass spectroscopy] nutrient, ionomics and trace element profiling as a tool to

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Conferences are a great place to get feedback on your research from leaders in your field as well as other graduate students. They’re also great for networking and building a group of contacts that you can use for advice in the future.  David Shiffman (PhD candidate at the University of Miami), shares tips and tricks for students to get the most out of a conference. Read David Shiffman’s full article.

  1. If you’re a graduate student in the sciences, you should try to attend scientific conferences (or at least one).
  2. Read ahead, e-mail ahead, and plan ahead to make sure you don’t miss anything at the conference you’re attending.
  3. If your conference has concurrent sessions, it’s ok to move between rooms.
  4. Prepare an “elevator speech.”
  5. Don’t eat alone.
  6. You should have business cards. Seriously.
  7. Don’t be afraid to approach senior/famous scientists.
  8. Look for people who look like they don’t know anybody.
  9. Be active on Twitter before, after, and during the conference.
  10. Planning ahead makes conferences more affordable.
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