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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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ASPB: 90 Years of Plant Science Excellence

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Get Connected with Plant Biology 2014


We are hitting the road and heading to Portland for what is shaping up to be an amazing meeting. A team of volunteers and staff are working hard to make sure that the plant science community is as up-to-date and connected as possible both onsite and online, and we will be using the social web to do it. Here is a brief rundown of activities:

Include @ASPB and #PlantBiology14 in your tweets about Plant Biology 2014

Share your photos on Instagram and include @PlantBiology and #PlantBiology14 to get included in the main feed.

Check us out on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/myASPB

  • Post to our wall to share your experience-@PlantBiology and #PlantBiology14
  • Upload your photos, tag yourself and other attendees
  • Start a discussion
  • Check-in to events and places
  • Get updates from ASPB all year at: facebook.com/ASPB

Upload your Convention videos to YouTube and tag them with #PlantBiology14 and don’t forget to tweet your link with #PlantBiology14.

Share your Convention experience and insights on your blog and tag the post with#PlantBiology14. Show us what you’ve got! Post links to your blog on the ASPB FaceBook wall and Tweet the links.  We’ll pick our favorite blogger periodically and feature the blog on http://blog.aspb.org.

Join the iConnect Team
Join the iConnect with Plant Biology team at Plant Biology 2014! Contact Susan Cato or stop by the ASPB iConnect booth at the meeting.

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Please share this information freely so we can rally the entire plant science community around the amazing science, education, and networking at Plant Biology 2014.


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World Champions Need Plant Biology

Natural grass against white background No grass? No Wimbledon, World Cup, worldwide golf or baseball

According to SportsGrass.com, “sports and athletic field grasses must have dense, thick sod, be able to withstand impact and have the ability to repair quickly…Each seed mixture is used for the desired traits that are dominant to its variety and whether it grows well with the companion species.”

And who makes sure this happens? Plant biologists and related turf management experts, of course. Here are some ‘grassroots’ reasons why world champions have a sporting chance once they step onto the green.


The grass at Wimbledon is considered a ‘living, breathing surface.’ To learn how the head groundskeepers keep it healthy and why a light-weight serve and volley specialist is a grass court expert’s favorite type of player, check out:

dewy grass green background_000012071748Wimbledon 2014: The man behind the grass courts

Wimbledon 2014: Meet the All England Lawn Tennis Club experts who prepare the perfect grass courts

For Wimbledon’s Grass Courts, why the Expertise of Scientists and Agronomists is so Important

Digging deeper: Researchers at the Sports Turf Research Institute have built a ‘mini Wimbledon’ (as well as other mini venues) to study many factors including the use of pre-germinated seed, mowing heights, soil moisture, and surface firmness for optimal bounce.

World Cup Soccer (football)

The goal is to create grass that will “withstand a pounding and support the athletes.” So says, Steve Reid, research director for the company providing the grass for all of the pitches of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Here’s what’s growing on (those fields):

world droplet - iStock_000008790340Medium[1]

Why all the fuss and bother of maintaining natural grass when synthetic turf could even the playing field? Claire Dworsky, a 9-year-old soccer player and part-time UC Santa Clara scientist studies one angle of this debate as part of the American Geophysical Union’s Kids’ Science Challenge . Read more in Science and soccer: They’re both child’s play

Worldwide Golf Championships

The US Open ended in mid-June in North Carolina. The 143rd Open Championship tees off in July in England. The 96th PGA Championship takes to the bluegrass of Kentucky in August. And Scotland hosts the 40th Ryder Cup in September. How do course managers know what’s best for all these environments? They rely on programs like the Penn State Center for Turfgrass Science for research, advice, professional networks, and career development opportunities that support turf scientists specializing in golf courses.iStock_000008438917

It’s no small issue that golf literally covers a lot of ground. It has significant impact on the environment. So The Golf Environment Awards program seeks environmentally sustainable course management projects. There are three annual awards for twelve nominated finalists: ‘Environmental Golf Course of the Year’, ‘Conservation Greenskeeper of the Year’ and ‘Outstanding Environmental Project of the Year’. According to the award’s website, ‘Each entry is independently judged, not on the scale of project or financial investment, but on what the golf club has achieved and how it has benefited or is benefiting the environment.’

Watching Baseball

Baseball fans relish their home stadiums. Many things contribute to this loyalty. But the sights, smells, and performance of the stars all hinge on the specific and creative techniques that turf managers plow into each beautiful green diamond and outfield. These major leaguers get to the Big Show from programs like the:

“Studying turf science has greatly extended my knowledge of agriculture and has prepared me for a job that allows me to spend my days at the ballpark. It doesn’t get much better than that,” says turf scientist Joey Stevenson.

And if  YOU are watching Major League baseball this season, you may wish to check out The Grass Is Always Greener to learn which turfs are selected for each of the professional playing fields and why.

Want More?

You can scout sports grass stats from a member of your team (#PlantBiology). Check out Turfgrass Biology, Genetics, and Breedingedited by Michael D. Casler, Ronny R. Duncan (John Wiley & Sons, Jan 30, 2003).

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Chronobiology: Past, Present, & Future

25 Years of the Kay Laboratory (1989–2014)

ASPB Student Ambassador, University of Southern California

“The greatest thing of the past 25 years was the absolute privilege to know my present and past lab members. These people are good human beings: smart, funny, weird, goofy, tall, short…such a diverse group of uniformly intelligent men and women. Most of all, I just enjoyed the company of people of this caliber, and to see them go on and thrive is the greatest joy of all.”

—Dr. Steve A Kay
Dean, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences

The Kay Symposium was celebrated May 30, 2014, honoring Steve Kay’s 25 years of successful chronobiology research. The silver jubilee of the Kay Laboratory was hosted at University Park Campus, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. This one-day event of scientific talks covered the past, present, and future of chronobiology research across disciplines. Steve’s research has focused on plants, flies, and mammals. He started his lab in 1989 at Rockefeller University, and since then he has pioneered many groundbreaking discoveries in circadian biology. Apart from great discoveries, another significant contribution of his research over the past 25 years has been providing successful mentorships. The people trained in his lab are successful scientists in their independent capacities, who are now committed to passing the baton of scientific learning to the coming generation. Eminent guests of the symposium included Joanne Chory, Joe Ecker, Elliot Meyerowitz, Susan Golden, John Mullet, Frank Doyle III, and Peter Schultz.

Kay Colleagues

Colleagues: (from left) Ross Bersot, Frank Doyle III, Susan Golden, Peter Schultz, Steve Kay, Antony Dodd, Elliot Meyerowitz, Joe Ecker, and Joanne Chory. Photo by Eric Larsen Images.

The guests and speakers gathered from across the world to congratulate Steve for his successful journey. His lab alumni didn’t hesitate to carve time from their busy schedules to attend this special occasion. From his first graduate student and postdoc to present lab members, they gathered together to make the event remarkable.

I asked Steve what drives him in the field of chronobiology. Being nostalgic, he shared memories of his undergraduate years when his professor, Dr. Trevor Griffiths at the University of Bristol, asked him to investigate how light influences the developmental processes of plants. He recalls that in those days he never realized the dynamics with which plants modulate these developmental phenomena. This sparked his interest, and he was curious to answer the question.

I asked Steve what he thought would be the next big thing in plant biology. He replied, “Well, the next big thing is deep versus wide.” In his view, we should be very clear where we need to go deep and where we need to go wide. He firmly believes that since we don’t have the legacy of multiple models organisms/species in plant biology, we still should go deeper to harness our only reference, Arabidopsis. In his opinion, we are still struggling to solve the enigma of plant cellular dynamics. In our hunger to translate our current understanding, we must rethink where we need to go deep and where we need to go wide. He recalls the legendary example of the CO-FT module describing flowering mechanism (which came from his lab): “Today, the CO-FT module is active to all crop and noncrop plants and species, which was first described in Arabidopsis. In order to link the phenotype to genotype with understanding of detailed dynamics, we still need to persevere and still need to

Kay Speakers

Kay symposium speakers: Steve Kay (center) with (from left) Takato Imaizumi, Fernanda Ceriani, John Hogenesch, Stacey Harmer, Andrew Millar, and Satchin Panda. Photo by Eric Larsen Images.

drill down the model plant system. We need to agree to focus on a developing knowledge base that will help us quickly determine the low-hanging fruit that we get by doing deep sequencing that gives various levels of omics information. So, the problem is that there is a temptation to abandon the in-depth hypothesis-driven knowledge base. Thus, it is time for all of us to raise our voices unequivocally for more investment in basic science research.”

When asked for a message to the incoming generation of researchers, Steve summarized the present situation about extended learning with high expectations and decreasing opportunities. Thus, the most competitive postdocs should integrate different approaches, develop deep knowledge, and show core skill sets. “You have to be a Renaissance man or woman,” he remarked. He also advocated the idea of training grad students and postdocs beyond scientific learning and publishing good papers—by equipping them with skills that prepare them to be adaptable.

Kay Group

The Kay Group. Photo by Eric Larsen Images.




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Succinct messages have power.  Share your poster via Twitter, interact over your results, & your research impact will grow #PlantBiology14


See what we did there?  In just 140 characters (equivalent of one whole tweet) you learned a key theme, professional goal, and a practical action item (the hashtag) for connecting at Plant Biology 2014 and beyond.

There are going to be over 1000 posters at the Plant Biology 2014. Likely, you’re only interested in a subset of them having to do with your research area, but you also want to be open to serendipitously finding a relevant poster that you didn’t know existed in another section of the hall. Another big part of the poster session is connecting with people (aka networking). It can be hard to track down the author of a poster; they never quite seem to be standing there when you walk by. Or you have to stand by your poster while the authors of posters you want to see have to stand by theirs. The First step is a good poster, then talk about getting connected using a tool like Twitter.

Creating a visually appealing, readable (from 6-10ft) poster with a concise message.

ASPB has a guide to creating a great poster. There are also sites like betterposters.blogspot.com, where Zen Faulkes, Ph.D. reviews and writes about elements that make effective posters. The main points of a great poster:

  • Readability – Does a viewer intuitively know how to read your poster as they would a book?
  • Legibility – Can the text be read from a distance? Can figures be seen?
  • Well organized – Are the elements laid out intuitively for the audience?
  • Succinct – One message, the elevator pitch that a casual observer can take away.

 Now, let’s get your great poster seen and connect with others during the poster session & beyond.

  • Sign up for a Twitter account before you arrive and follow at least a few fellow plant biologists (tips: see who follows the @ASPB & search #PlantBiology14).
  • Put your Twitter handle prominently on your poster. It’s an easy way for someone to contact you about your if they have a question or wanted to meet to talk about research in near real time without having to give your private phone number.
  • Then advertise your poster, say when you’re around it and interact with fellow poster presenters on Twitter throughout the conference.
  • Be bold and tweet at specific people you’d like to see your work. Twitter is a great platform that can spread your amazing poster’s message beyond the 10-foot (3m) visible radius it otherwise has.

Twitter will help you connect with researchers & work you may not otherwise run across– even those not attending #PlantBiology14.

ASPB_iConnect_LogoPres_04 copy

The iConnect with Plant Biology team will be curating Twitter and social media activity during the conference and you can help enrich other’s experience of Plant Biology 2014 by tweeting and using the #PlantBiology14 hash tag.

See you on Twitter & at Plant Biology 2014 in Portland, OR in July, +Ian Street (@IHStreet) & The iConnect Team

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Communicating Plant Science in the Digital Age

One plant narrative

10,000 years of agriculture has transformed our world. Several thousand years after farming became widespread, people started using papyrus to write on to record information and communicate. Papyrus was displaced by paper and eventually large parts of human endeavor were all communicated on bleached plant fibers; great paintings, doodles and the written to-do list were invented, literacy spread. Even in our increasingly digital world, paper notebooks remain popular and useful for anyone who wants to use them to document their minds, including scientists.

All of it stemmed from growing plants for food and other civilization-related purposes. Paper was the path to The Internet– the literal plans for it were likely on paper first. The history of plants is as much a part of us as the history of the universe and crucial to study. This might appear to be an obvious story, but it’s one I’ll bet most people don’t think of when they’re sitting at their computers or taking notes or even appreciating a plant in their home, garden or in nature.

Plants and the social web.

Does plant science have the prominence it deserves (could be asked for science generally too)? Based on social media presence– a great way to engage people– reaching them where they are– perhaps not so much. The most-followed science twitter accounts have nothing to do with plants. In an era of tight research budgets and public audiences that could easily be more scientifically literate– especially in what sounds to many like obscure research like plant biology– increasing scientists’ engagement with the public on platforms like Twitter will make a difference.

Of course scientists are already online– there are fantastic tools there that enhance our work. When it comes to social media, interactions with other scientists can expand networks, create collaborations and spark new research ideas. I am often more comfortable networking and talking to other scientists on Twitter than I am in real life– and those Twitter interactions can turn into real life meetings.

Social media also allows a glimpse of scientists as humans – not everyone knows a scientist and the stereotypical image of the personality-less white lab coat persists. My tweeting is not purely professional; I talk about some of the every day things I go through too. Search #OverlyHonestMethods on Twitter for a great look at how scientists portray themselves as definitively human.

Beyond internal communications, however, scientists can also capitalize on social media to share the stories of science more broadly with non-scientists. A person’s first encounter with a scientific idea might well be via Facebook or Twitter. Though more science than ever is being more communicated than ever on The Internet, there is a lot of room for growth. Most fields of science are represented online, but physicists, engineers and NASA seem to dominate (Table 1).

Do plant scientists communicate science well today on social media?§

Number of followers







100,000- 1,000,000








Twitter accounts













@ASPB @ThePlantJournal


@JChrisPires @SPSPNews







@OMSI @Amy_harmon































@SciFri, @NSF













@NeilTyson @Discovery

@wired @TEDTalks





Number of Twitter followers of science oriented organizations or individuals. Plant biology organizations and individuals are in red.

§A non-exhaustive list As of March 2014 *10 million followers on Facebook.


Any solid science communication advertises all science at some level– no matter how big or small. The fact that physicists, astronomers, NASA and engineers seem to attain broad cultural presence/popularity relative to other fields of science suggests they have some awareness of what works. Could the show ‘The Big Bang Theory’ be about any other field of science? The physics/engineering aspect is pretty key to the show’s success I think. A lot of scientists I know aren’t fans of “The Big Bang Theory”, but the fact that there’s a popular show with somewhat realistic scientists as central characters (we’ve all met a Sheldon Cooper in our science careers) is worth celebrating.

Recently, the reboot of ‘Cosmos’ is airing on a network television and being broadcast worldwide; there is an appetite for science amongst the public. The second episode addresses evolution and features photosynthesizing organisms, particularly the oxygenation of the atmosphere when the Earth was ~2 billion years old. Dr. Tyson also uses the metaphor of the tree of life literally by standing in front of an oak tree and using it to demonstrate how life shares common ancestry. Plants have made several other appearances in the show as well which is good to see for a show that would appear to be centered on physics. Showing the interconnectedness of fields of science is good to see, though having people within a field add to the narrative that ‘Cosmos’ starts is a possible next step in telling more specific stories of science. Plant scientists have to be there to add to the story.

The most popular plant science oriented person with over 100,000 followers is the food author Michael Pollan (see table). Combined, the botanical gardens, The ASPB, plant journals, Monstanto, The Danofrth Center, and the rest don’t get close to him (again, see table). Plant scientists already know why science– plants specifically– are inherently interesting and important. There are plant scientists writing about plant science and engaging on Twitter like Pam Ronald, Mary Williams, Kevin Folta and Anne Osterrieder et al. (see table). As far as I know, however, there is not a Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson of the plant world.

The most famous plant scientist nearly everyone knows is not widely known for his work on plants: Charles Darwin (to be sure, it’s good he’s best known for natural selection). There are plant scientists like Norman Borlaug and Barbara McClintock that the scientific community might know well, but very few members of Congress or a large majority of the public could name or talk about what they discovered. There is not an organization promoting purely plant science (public or private) that has a large following (greater than 100,000). Popularizing science and plant science particularly is challenging, but certainly is a core part of scientists’ and ASPB’s mission; educating students is great and also necessary, but adults need to learn things too (perhaps it’s even more important in the short term for adults to be scientifically literate).

What can Plant scientists learn from the great science communicators?

Can the plant science community learn from Neil Tyson, Bill Nye, and NASA? What’s made them successful? Partly, they are all rather expert in what I recently learned from a postdoc working for NASA on a polar regions project they call Education, Public Outreach (EPO). NASA landing astronauts on The Moon inspired a generation (landing a plant on the moon might be cool, but likely wouldn’t have the same impact). Both Neil Tyson and Bill Nye (and before them Carl Sagan) are associated with NASA in some way. As Neil Tyson likes to say, NASA gives us The Universe– a different, cosmic perspective, of ourselves. The Mars Curiosity Rover and Cassini missions have sent back some of the most incredible pictures ever captured. All of NASA’s missions have their own social media accounts, including the 36-year-old Voyager missions. They actively promote their work.

Saying you’re smashing small particles together at the CERN Large Hadron Collider to create other small particles or you’re building a telescope to look up at the sky isn’t exactly inspiring…nor does it seem like there’s much of a point (does it affect our day-to-day life? Yes, but most would say not obviously or immediately so). Showing that we got the world wide web because of CERN and that we can all carry around CCD based cameras in our pockets because of that telescope does help bring the significance message home; and physicists and NASA engineers seem to do this very well. Even stories like the episode of ‘Cosmos’ telling Clair Patterson’s story; trying to determine the age of the Earth lead to the removal of lead from gasoline and other industrial uses (today, it’s unimaginable that someone would be against having less lead in the environment).

Practical products and clean air aside, there’s something else NASA and other effective science communicators hit upon that’s deeper. In Neil Tyson’s recent interview on ‘Fresh Air’ he talks about NASA being an inspiration engine, a critical part of creating a national (even worldwide) learning environment where curiosity is celebrated, inquisitiveness and innovation are defining cultural characteristics. When Commander Chris Hadfield started tweeting from the International Space Station (ISS), people connected with him in a big way. He started small, but it grew into a huge following that’s been passed to other astronauts occupying the ISS.

There is an appetite out there for learning about the natural world, scientists just have to do a better job bringing it to light.

NASA & astronomer’s success is a combination of producing great pictures, presenting their results in interesting ways, showing the human side of their work and telling stories that resonate with people. EPO seems to work best when it’s coming from a specific person to the right audience, not the institution as a whole, but the organization can provide important context and lend credibility to an individual connecting with others.

Even with all their success, there’s a sense in the scientific community that in the US at least, people are still divorced from the science that impacts their lives every day and aren’t necessarily inspired by it (as they are by the other part of the creative fields: entertainment). It’s as if scientists are acting like photosynthesizing organisms, absorbing a lot of light for our selves, allowing only some of it to be seen by others. The Internet was a product of basic research and now to get the word out, scientists are competing with everyone else to get our ideas heard. On the Skeptic’s Guide to The Universe Podcast’s new year’s episode, they talked about the top Google searches of the year; none of them directly science related. Smartphones made the list, but likely not because of the science and engineering behind them but because they’re the hot new gadget to own (I love my smartphone too).

Beyond his obvious charisma and hard work to figure out how to communicate science well, Neil Tyson does some very smart things like pairing with comedians in his conversations. When he appears on ‘The Daily Show’, ‘The Colbert Report’, or does his ‘Startalk Radio’ show/podcast, he’s paired with a professional comedian to bring levity to what many still consider a serious topic, namely science. Comedians are a form of communication specialist and many are very smart in their own right and ask very good, if somewhat unexpected, questions that Dr. Tyson then responds to. It’s not the most structured way of answering specific questions, but it demonstrates that science is more than a list of facts and is, like entertainment, a creative endeavor; crossing those streams is a good thing. Dr. Tyson aided and abetted the demotion of Pluto from planet status and does a great job justifying it to a public that was rather upset that something seemingly constant changed.

The relatively large community of astronomers, physicists and engineers that work individually, yet together, to tell the big and small stories of the universe is one key to their success as is long tradition (Galileo might well be considered an early science communicator). They produce amazing data and are able to get the message out in engaging ways through both traditional and social media. None of this was built overnight, but with ASPB and members working together to create a portal for plant science facilitating member interactions while also sharing our research stories with the world, plant science will be more accessible to fellow plant scientists and a curious public. The current Digital Futures Initiative being undertaken by ASPB is just such an effort that I hope the membership finds useful both for connecting with other plant scientists and creating a platform for connecting plant science to non-plant scientists.

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