Maureen McCann became ASPB president on October 1, 2020. She succeeds Judy Callis, who becomes immediate past president. In the following article, Maureen tells us her thoughts for ASPB over the next few years.
A career in academic research is, in equal measures, hard work and great fun. But I believe deeply that academic life is a privilege and that we have a collective responsibility to entrain science for the public interest. As president, I would like to amplify the voices of our early career scientists throughout ASPB, on Capitol Hill, and beyond. Global trends of increasing population, increasing urbanization, and climate change will impact the global economy and agricultural system to an unprecedented extent over the next few decades. The remarkable metabolic diversity and plasticity of plants will be critical to mitigate and meet these challenges in production of food, feed, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, fuels, and materials for a robust and sustainable bio-based economy. To paraphrase Matt Damon’s character from The Martian as he contemplates surviving on Mars until and if he is rescued, we’re going to have to “science the hell” out of this.
One of our key assets is our Society. Free exchange of knowledge at the forefront of scientific disciplines, the development of interdisciplinary collaborations across the research community, and, most critically, the next generation of the best and brightest minds rooting their careers in the plant sciences are prerequisites that ASPB facilitates. ASPB is our voice for the importance of plant biology, the value of the research enterprise, and the impact of our science in the world.
I am a professor of biological sciences at Purdue University, a member of Purdue’s Center for Plant Biology, and director of the NEPTUNE Center for Power and Energy Research, funded by the Office of Naval Research. At the national level, I am a member of DOE’s Biological and Environmental Research Advisory Committee and served on the National Academies’ Committee on Safeguarding the Bioeconomy. I have previously served on the USDA-DOE Biomass Research and Development Technical Advisory Committee and the DOE Office of Science, Council for Chemical and Biochemical Sciences. In 2017–2018, I participated, as one of 14 nominated individuals, in DOE’s Oppenheimer Science and Energy Leadership Program to provide potential future leaders with an overview of DOE and the National Laboratory system.
I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and am among the first generation in my family to attend college. I obtained my undergraduate degree in 1987 in natural sciences from the University of Cambridge and a PhD in 1990 in botany from the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom. I was a postdoctoral researcher at the John Innes Centre, a government-funded research institute for plant and microbial sciences, and remained there as a project leader from 1995, funded by The Royal Society with a University Research Fellowship. This 10-year fellowship allowed me to develop my research interests in how the molecular architecture of the plant cell wall contributes to cell growth and differentiation, and thus to the final stature and form of plants. I moved to Purdue in 2003. As an instructor, I teach eukaryotic genetics to juniors and seniors.
As a plant biologist with a passion for sustainable production of food, feed, fuel, chemicals, and materials from lignocellulosic biomass, I have 113 peer-reviewed publications, 24 of which are published in The Plant Cell and Plant Physiology, and an h-index of 60, with more than 16,500 citations. I first joined ASPB in 2002. I was a monitoring editor for Plant Physiology from 2008 to 2013 and a member of the ASPB Science Policy Committee (formerly Public Affairs) from 2010 to 2014. In 2015, I was elected by the Society as a member of the Board of Directors and, in 2018, as a Fellow of ASPB.
From 2009 to 2018, I was director of the Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio), an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the DOE Office of Science. C3Bio was a team of chemical engineers, chemists, and plant biologists focused on building the scientific knowledge base to convert plant materials (fast-growing trees, crop residues, dedicated bioenergy crops) into liquid hydrocarbon fuels and high-value chemicals. Within C3Bio, my lab explored synthetic biology and genetic engineering approaches to optimize cell wall architecture and biomass structure for novel chemical conversion processes. I am proud that, although C3Bio was funded to conduct grand-challenge science at the atomic and molecular scale, the center also produced 11 patent applications and the start-up company Spero Energy and engaged more than 100 early career scientists in interdisciplinary research.
Between 2010 and 2018, I also served as director of Purdue’s Energy Center, representing more than 200 affiliated faculty with energy-related research interests. During my tenure, the Energy Center received direct proposal credit from its affiliated faculty for over $500 million in proposals and $100 million in funded awards.
Since the world turned upside down this year, I’ve been so proud of how our Society kept on track—from building our publications partnership with Oxford University Press; to creating discussion spaces on equity, diversity, and inclusion; to moving our annual meeting online—when so many other organizations were postponing into 2021. Looking forward into the coming year, a strategic planning exercise has begun for ASPB, the organization. There is an existing strategic plan for ASPB, the members, reflecting our aspirations as plant biologists, but that doesn’t speak to the business of managing and operating all that is done by the staff and CEO. What staffing, governance, and fiscal structures will ASPB establish to ensure sustainability of the organization in its second century? What revenue-generating activities could better support the work of our members? How will we make sure that the product portfolio is integrated, interconnected, and leading edge? And how will we amplify ASPB’s reputation for thought leadership within and outside of the plant science research community?
We will follow through on a renewed commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion. Like many institutions and organizations, ASPB has engaged in reflection and reevaluation prompted by the murders of George Floyd and others. There’s a lot of discussion going on now about what actions we should take—and we will act—but the end goals here couldn’t be clearer. We need to take a careful look in the mirror to make sure our own leadership structures reflect the diversity we want to see in our community; we need to make sure that addressing diversity and inclusion is everyone’s business; and ultimately, we need to change cultures and climates throughout the plant biology community.
As we approach our centennial in 2024, this is also a good time to ramp up the fundraising activities that are so important in supporting the good works of our members: providing travel awards, creating online resources and tools, and honoring individuals for their contributions to plant biology. The Legacy Society Leadership Committee is charged with developing the Centennial Challenge, even as we begin rolling out the Pioneer Program.
Following creation of the new Early Career Plant Scientists Section, we hope to expand the participation of our early career researchers into the governance and leadership of the Society. Finally, as a new bioeconomy enabled by recombinant DNA and rooted in plant and microbial science emerges, we aim to engage more deeply with scientists in industry. So look for new initiatives to increase industry membership and participation in the months ahead, and for all these topics we will be looking to gather your ideas and inputs.
After this year of upheaval, here’s hoping that we all get to meet in person at Plant Biology 2021 in Pittsburgh.