Getting engaged in my PB19 T-shirt: The whole story!

The background story to the ASPB article ‘From San Jose to “Yes!”‘

Everyone loves a good heartfelt romantic story… so if you’re curious how Plant Biology 2019 had a role in my romantic relationship- read on!

I have lived in Annapolis, Maryland since I was born. I graduated from the University of Maryland (go Terps!) with a biochemistry degree in 2014. During my time at UMD I worked in a plant physiology research lab working on Arabidopsis under Dr. Heven Sze. When I graduated, I had this crazy urge to travel, since I had never really explored beyond Maryland. I had always wanted to travel to Australia to pet some kangaroos and hold some koalas. When I mentioned this to Dr. Sze, she told me she knew one of the department heads at the University of Adelaide, Australia and that she would recommend me for a research technician position there. I was so lucky and ended up getting a 6-month contract working in Adelaide in the Plant Research Centre under Dr. Steve Tyerman in 2014. During my second month working in Adelaide, I volunteered for an Equestrian Event that Adelaide hosts in the city (my main hobby is horseback riding). It was at this horse event that I met my fiancé, Kym Schmidt, who is originally from Adelaide. During the week organizing the horse event, we had so much fun working together; it was a match made in heaven! At the end of the week, he asked me on a proper date to get dinner at the beach. We ended up spending the rest of my 4 months in Adelaide doing so much together: road trips, wine tours, hiking, and lots of beach days. Despite being 10,000 miles away from my home and family for the longest time of my life so far, Kym made me feel at home in Adelaide.

When the 6 months were up, it was a huge reality check. I had been living in a dream bubble down under and I had to face the facts: it was going to be too hard to do long distance. It didn’t make any sense; Our families were too far apart, how would we ever end up together? I left Adelaide in tears. I thought going back home would reset me and I would find my own groove, but Kym and I found ourselves face timing every morning and night. Even with the 12.5-hour time difference, we made it work. In order to afford to come to visit me in the US, Kym ended up joining Camp America two summers in a row just to spend some time with me and my family. My family even surprised me one Christmas by flying him over as my present (best present ever!!). I was working for the USDA during this time (a plant pathology position), and it became clear in my career that I wanted to pursue a PhD. Fate was in our favour, and after almost 2 years of long-distance (and many 25+ hour flights back and forth), I was moving to Adelaide to pursue a PhD in plant genetics under Professor Diane Mather. It was tears of happiness when I received the acceptance phone call from the postdoc in the lab to tell me I was awarded the scholarship.

Since meeting in 2014, Kym and I have been on so many adventures together: Skiing, shark cage diving, hiking the Grand Canyon, and horseback riding.

Kym and I have been living together in Adelaide since I moved for the PhD in September 2016, and that original dream bubble I had been living in before was now a reality. Since starting my PhD, we have only traveled back to the US to see my family once since it is an expensive trip. My PhD project is studying resistance to cereal cyst nematodes in wheat. I am working towards identifying a causal gene for resistance in wheat and understanding the resistance mechanism. During my PhD I made a fascinating discovery in the morphology of xylem vessels within roots when infected with nematodes- a key feature that helps explain successful parasitism. I was thrilled to present this information at PB19 and was supported by two travel grants (Crop Science Society of South Australia and the Plant Nutrition Trust). Plant Biology 2019 is my first conference since beginning the PhD, and when I saw it was in California, I thought it would be great to fly home in Maryland the following week to see my family. I took this short 2-week trip myself (so I thought).

wheat heads
Growing wheat in South Australia for my PhD project studying resistance against cereal cyst nematode.

The Plant Biology conference was incredible! I instantly made some very close friends by meeting up with Twitter people and just saying hi to some friendly faces. I loved the app for the conference; I made sure I didn’t miss out on anything important to me! The sessions were perfect. I never felt overwhelmed with information, especially since I was so intrigued by all the research going on. The quality of speakers for major symposiums and concurrent sessions was wonderful. People were so friendly! I found that as brilliant as the researchers were, they were very approachable and excited to talk science with me. I was lucky to have been chosen for a lightning talk as well as an e-poster. I was a bit nervous about my talk, but all the concurrent speakers were so encouraging, I felt like I was presenting among close friends. The absolute best part for me as a PhD student was the multiple networking sessions. I attended the networking breakfast as well as the Beyond Academia sessions. I had lovely informative conversations (one-on-one) with some people who truly inspire me! I think having these connections helps me feel like I belong in the scientific community and that there are many options for someone like me who is considering a career outside of academia. As much as the core SCIENCE of the conference is so valuable, I find that making personal connections with people you admire is so priceless. Professionals were eager to answer my questions and give me their direct contact. As for e-posters, I loved the concept, however, I found that just a 30-min period on one day was not sufficient. I ended up taking my iPad with me to the other poster sessions and showing people my poster who were interested in conversation (which is a total PLUS of an e-poster- take it anywhere!!). People were excited about my research, which was an amazing feeling! I was buzzing with excitement by the end of Plant Biology 2019.

PB19 RUnway
Meeting some amazing people (from Twitter!) at Plant Biology 2019 in San Jose: Eliana Vonapartis (middle) and Abhinav Maurya (right)

I proudly put on my PB19 T-shirt to make the trip from San Jose to Baltimore. When I landed in BWI, I was so excited to see my family; It had been almost 2 years since I had seen them! My family is small (Mom, Dad, brother and sister-in-law), but we are very close. We went straight from the airport to celebrate with dinner. My Dad insisted on going to downtown Annapolis for dinner, which is a beautiful colonial city in Maryland that sits on the water. When we got there, Dad walked me down to the docks first so we could all get a picture. When we walked down there, I was in absolute shock when I saw Kym standing there. I ran over to give him a huge hug but instead, he grabbed my hands and told me some beautiful things about our journey together before getting down on one knee and asking for my hand in marriage, holding a stunning ring. Of which of course I said yes! I was a crying mess (in my Plant Biology t-shirt) and still trying to piece together how he was there!? My family (who was all in on the secret) was so happy for me. How they kept it all a secret is still beyond me. But it meant the world to me that he did this in front of my family and even made them a part of it. Turns out Kym secretly bought flights after I had left for PB19, traveled to my home with my family the night before I arrived, and orchestrated a plan with them to make it a special night. Living across the world is beyond difficult when you are away from family and friends (on top of navigating through a PhD). To find a partner that supports every aspect of your life and would do anything for you (including following me around the world) is a dream come true.

Kym Schmidt and myself in Annapolis, Maryland: just engaged!

I think that ASPB is a necessary society. It’s a community that makes me feel like I belong and a place where I can search for help and advice, as well as keep up with exciting news within the plant biology group. Plus it provided a perfect opportunity (and T-shirt) for a beautiful moment in my life! I’m excited to see what Plant Biology 2020 might have in store!


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