How do you grow a plant scientist?

This week’s blog post is written by Sarah Blackford.

Plant scientists are generally very good at growing their plants, taking good care of them and making sure they’re well fed and watered. But what about their own development? Who’s growing them?

In a recent survey, Principal Investigators (PIs) were asked to rate areas of their work they perceived to be the most important. Research-related activities were valued the highest (Vitae, 2011), while conversely, “providing career development advice” and “continuing professional development” were rated as two of their lowest priorities, at around 5% (see figure). This, perhaps, is not surprising when you consider PIs need to prioritize a multitude of responsibilities on their ‘to do’ list.

PI Leaders report 2011

Figure reproduced from Principal investigators and research leaders survey, Vitae (2011) showing the importance of activities and functions for the development of research leaders, against their own confidence in those activities

 

From small shoots

Like the plant, overlooking the growth of the person could lead to plant scientists being held back from a flourishing career. So, taking responsibility for your own development is vital, especially since programs of professional and personal development are not always readily available to PhD students and researchers in many institutes and universities. Even if they are, the content and timing is not always relevant or convenient. I’ve been delivering bespoke career development workshops for bioscientists, including plant scientists, for over 10 years now and one of the main aims is to help people to help themselves. As well as providing practical information and advice on bioscience-related careers, job seeking strategies and career transition planning, I use interactive exercises and discussions to raise self-awareness. This involves recognizing the range of skills acquired through research, appreciating work values, linking interests with career choice and showing how personality plays a crucial role in effective communication and leadership. During the workshops, the participants complete a personal action plan identifying what they need to do to grow their own careers.

Firmly planted

Most people need to update and improve their CVs (even me!), hone their interview technique and perfect their self-presentation skills. But personal and professional development requires a range of different actions depending on career goals and intentions. Some PhD students want to continue on to do at least one postdoc and then decide whether to carry on after that. With quite a good number of posts available, and with some industry recruiters saying they prefer researchers with postdoc experience, this can be an excellent first step – but be careful to ensure you’re moving forward and building on your experience. Look at the career stories of early career researchers who were awarded this year’s prestigious SEB president’s medal – they relate strategies they have used to fill gaps in their expertise and to position themselves favorably to secure a permanent research leadership position. For researchers who are aspiring academics, their plans may include actions such as submitting an abstract to give a talk at a forthcoming conference, doing some strategic networking or finding a mentor to help them to apply for a fellowship.

Branching out

For those considering a non-academic career, their personal development will depend on which career sector they plan to move into. For example, arranging work shadowing or doing voluntary work can help shift your career towards your desired destination. I helped out at the career service during my job as assistant editor when I was based at Southampton University, giving me enough experience and a reference to break into this career. Internships can provide opportunities to spend time working in areas such as policy, outreach and publishing, and if you’re a budding science writer you can simply start up your own blog, or write on someone else’s – like this one! Everyone would benefit from setting up or improving their presence on social media, whether it’s Researchgate, LinkedIn or Twitter. These global networks help to raise your profile, provide information about companies and careers of interest, build relationships and even advertise jobs. Generic training in communication, networking, self-awareness and other personal effectiveness can help to improve everyone’s self-reliance and confidence.

A fertile future

So in answer to the question, “how do you grow a plant scientist?” I would say it depends on their field of interest and direction of growth. Never think of your PhD as the end of your learning – it’s another new beginning. Even PIs lack confidence in some important aspects of their work, such as securing research funding (see figure) and would likely benefit from training in this area, not to mention management and leadership. Growing plants is your business; without them you would make no progress, nor generate results on which to write your publications and build a career. Ignore your own personal growth and you might be in danger of going to seed!

This blog is a summary of the career workshop, organized and delivered by Sarah Blackford, at the recent FESPB/EPSO Congress 2016 in Prague.


Sarah Blackford

Dr Sarah Blackford

 

Sarah Blackford started her career in plant science research at York University, moved into journal publishing with the Journal of Experimental Botany and then trained to be a professional higher education careers adviser. She is currently the Head of Education and Public Affairs at the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) and writes a regular blog for bioscience PhD students and postdocs: www.biosciencecareers.org

Let’s get Plantae!

So you’re hearing good things about the new plant science networking platform Plantae and want to get involved? You’ve come to the right blog post! Read on to learn how to set up your profile, find friends and get involved with the community.

Who are you?

Plantae profile

Filling in your profile is easy!

Plantae is a great place to network with researchers around the world, so you’ll want your profile to be as detailed as possible.

As a minimum, add your name, a profile photo, your professional affiliations and a summary of who you are and what you do. This will help your colleagues and friends to find you, and break the networking ice with new connections!

What makes a good bio? Give the reader a little information about your fields of interest, background, plant science outreach, new papers, favorite plant, whatever you like (related to plants and plant science, of course!). Remember that Plantae is a professional networking site, so don’t put anything on there that you wouldn’t want your boss (current or future!) to see!

Where can I find out more about this interesting person?

Plantae social media

Don’t forget to add your social media and researcher profiles

A great feature of the Core Profile is the ability to add your social media profiles, website, and enhance the visibility of your research by adding researcher profiles, for example your ORCID, Mendeley, or ResearchGate account. To ensure that the accounts connect properly, add the full URL of each profile, not just your account name.

 

Will you be my friend?

From the Community homepage you can choose to see the recent activity of your friends, but only if you’ve added them first!

Add a friend on Plantae

How to add a friend on Plantae

To find colleagues, click on ‘Members’ and you can search for a name, or filter all members by city, state or country. Click on your friend’s name to go to their profile. On the left sidebar, you’ll see a button named ‘User Actions’, which when clicked brings up the option to add them as a friend. After they accept your request, you’re officially friends. Congratulations!

Branching out

Plantae groups

Join a group to continue networking

Now you’ve added everyone you know, it’s time to connect with people that you don’t! Get over to the Discussion boards and let everyone know how you feel about the latest hot paper or public engagement scheme. Or you could join a Group of users who share your interests, location, or love of plant-themed poetry (disclaimer: the latter is currently not a Plantae group – feel free to start it!). It’s easy to join conversations or start one of your own.

Finding funding, jobs and resources

Plantae is a hub of plant science resources, including research news, funding opportunities, job advertisements, science policy news and a wealth of education and public engagement tools. Log in regularly to see up and coming events, grant calls, opinion pieces and more, or maybe upload some of your own!

Join us!

There you have it. Now you know the basics, reach out to the Plantae network, get involved in exciting plant science discussions, make the most of funding and job opportunities, and, pretty please, fill in your profile!

A year at the Global Plant Council

Last April I joined the Global Plant Council as a New Media Fellow along with Sarah Jose from the University of Bristol. The GPC is a small organization with a big remit: to bring together stakeholders in the plant and crop sciences from around the world! As New Media Fellows, Sarah and I have have assisted in raising the online profile of the GPC through various social media platforms. We wrote about our experiences in growing this blog and the GPC Twitter and Facebook accounts in the The Global Plant Council Guide to Social Media, which details our successes and difficulties in creating a more established online presence.

 

Why do it?

My wheat growing in Norfolk field trials. I have spent every summer for the past 3 years out here analysing photosynthesis and other possible contributors to crop yield

My wheat growing in Norfolk field trials. I have spent every summer for the past 3 years out here analysing photosynthesis and other possible contributors to crop yield

I chose to apply for the fellowship during the third year of my PhD. Around this time I had started to consider that perhaps a job in research wasn’t for me. It was therefore important to gain experience outside of my daily life in the lab and field, explore possible careers outside of academia and of course to add vital lines to my CV. I still loved science, and found my work interesting, so knew I wanted to stay close to the scientific community. Furthermore, I had always enjoyed being active on Twitter, and following scientific blogs, so the GPC fellowship sounded like the perfect opportunity!

 

The experience

I think I can speak for both Sarah and myself when I say that this fellowship has been one of the best things I’ve done during my PhD. Managing this blog for a year has allowed me to speak to researchers working on diverse aspects of the plant sciences from around the world. My speed and writing efficiency have improved no end, and I can now write a decent 1000 word post in under an hour! I discovered the best places to find freely available photos, and best way to present a WordPress article. Assisting with Twitter gave me an excuse to spend hours reading interesting articles on the web – basically paid procrastination – and I got to use my creativity to come up with new ways of engaging our community.

Next career move, camera woman?

Filming interviews at the Stress Resilience Forum. Next career move, camera woman?

Of course going to Brazil for the Stress Resilience Symposium, GPC AGM and IPMB was a highlight of my year. I got to present to the international community both about my own PhD research and the work of the GPC, Sarah and I became expert camera women while making the Stress Resilience videos, and I saw the backstage workings of a conference giving out Plantae badges on the ASPB stand at IPMB. It didn’t hurt that I got to see Iguassu Falls, drink more than a few caipirinhas and spend a sneaky week in Rio de Janeiro!

Helping out on the ASPB stand

Helping out on the ASPB stand with Sarah

 

Thank you

Working with the GPC team has been fantastic. I learnt a lot about how scientific societies are run and the work they do by talking to the representatives from member societies at the AGM. The executive board have been highly supportive of our activities throughout. Last but not least, the lovely GPC ladies, Ruth, Lisa and Sarah have been an amazing team to work with – I cannot thank you enough!

I have now handed in my PhD, left the GPC, and moved on to a new career outside of academic research. I’m going into a job focused on public engagement and widening access to higher education, and have no doubt my GPC experiences have helped me get there. My advice if you’re unsure about where you want to end up after your PhD? Say “yes” to all new opportunities as you never know where they will take you.

Thank you the GPC! Hopefully I’ll be back one day!

 

Thank you! It's been amazing!

Thank you! It’s been amazing!

Plant scientists respond: “Plants are boring!”

Throughout my PhD, I often found myself explaining why plants are fascinating, justifying why I was devoting four years of my life to researching the minute details of their biology.

A few weeks ago, I thought I’d ask the #plantsci community on Twitter what makes them love plants. The response was phenomenal, so I thought I’d share it here as a fun way to transition to 2017!

(This is just a handful of the huge number of comments. To read them all, click here.)

 

 

Many of us are amazed by the fact that they can fend for themselves, rather than running away from harsh conditions or predators:

 

Don’t worry though, because plants can fight back:


They can alter their environments in really interesting ways too:

   

A lot of people are interested in plant reproduction:

 

 Some species can survive for millennia:


Much of the rest of the ecosystem relies on them…


… and of course, they give us much of what we need to survive…


We need to highlight how amazing plants are, to counteract “plant blindness”:


Plant blindness means that many people are unaware of the amazing things that are happening around them:


Being scientists, a lot of people liked how easy plants are to work with!

Some of the biggest scientific discoveries were made in plants:


In conclusion:

Thanks to everyone who took part in this twitter chat! This is just a subset of the huge number of comments we received. To read them all, click here!

Have we missed anything? Why do you love plants?

Now That’s What I Call Plant Science 2015

With another year nearly over we recently put out a call for nominations for the Most Influential Plant Science Research of 2015. Suggestions flooded in, and we also trawled through our social media feeds to see which stories inspired the most discussion and engagement. It was fantastic to read about so much amazing research from around the world. Below are our top five, selected based on impact for the plant science research community, engagement on social media, and importance for both policy and potential end product/application.

Choosing the most inspiring stories was not an easy job. If you think we’ve missed something, please let us know in the comments below, or via Twitter! In the coming weeks we’ll be posting a 2015 Plant Science Round Up, which will include other exciting research that didn’t quite make the top five, so watch this space!

  1. Sweet potato is a naturally occurring GM crop
Sweet potato contains genes from bacteria making it a naturally occurring GM crop

Sweet potato contains genes from bacteria making it a naturally occurring GM crop. Image from Mike Licht used under creative commons license 2.0

Scientists at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, found that 291 varieties of sweet potato actually contain bacterial genes. This technically means that sweet potato is a naturally occurring genetically modified crop! Alongside all the general discussion about GM regulations, particularly in parts of Europe where regulations about growing GM crops have been decentralized from Brussels to individual EU Member States, this story caused much discussion on social media when it was published in March of this year.

It is thought that ancestors of the modern sweet potato were genetically modified by bacteria in the soil some 8000 years ago. Scientists hypothesize that it was this modification that made consumption and domestication of the crop possible. Unlike the potato, sweet potato is not a tuber but a mere root. The bacteria genes are thought to be responsible for root swelling, giving it the fleshy appearance we recognize today.

This story is incredibly important, firstly because sweet potato is the world’s seventh most important food crop, so knowledge of its genetics and development are essential for future food supply. Secondly, Agrobacterium is frequently used by scientists to artificially genetically modify plants. Evidence that this process occurs in nature opens up the conversation about GM, the methods used in this technology, and the safety of these products for human consumption.

Read the original paper in PNAS here.

  1. RNA-guided Cas9 nuclease creates targetable heritable mutations in Barley and Brassica

Our number two on the list also relates to genetic modification, this time focusing on methods. Regardless of whether or not we want to have genetically modified crops in our food supply, GM is a valuable tool used by researchers to advance knowledge of gene function at the genetic and phenotypic level. Therefore, systems of modification that make the process faster, cheaper, and more accurate provide fantastic opportunities for the plant science community to progress its understanding.

The Cas9 system is a method of genome editing that can make precise changes at specific locations in the genome relatively cheaply. This novel system uses small non-coding RNA to direct Cas9 nuclease to the DNA target site. This type of RNA is small and easy to program, providing a flexible and easily accessible system for genome editing.

Barley in the field

Barley in the field. Image by Moldova_field used under creative commons license 2.0

Inheritance of genome modifications using Cas9 has previously been shown in the model plants, Arabidopsis and rice. However, the efficiency of this inheritance, and therefore potential application in crop plants has been questionable.

The breakthrough study published in November by researchers at The Sainsbury Laboratory and John Innes Centre both in Norwich, UK, demonstrated the mutation of two commercial crop plants, Barley and Brassica oleracea, using the Cas9 system and subsequent inheritance mutations.

This is an incredibly exciting development in the plant sciences and opens up many options in the future in terms of genome editing and plant science research.

Read the full paper in Genome Biology here.

  1. Control of Striga growth

Striga is a parasitic plant that mainly affects parts of Africa. It is a major threat to food crops such as rice and corn, leading to yield losses worth over 10 billion US dollars, and affecting over 100 million people.

Striga infects the host crop plant through its roots, depriving them of their nutrients and water. The plant hormone strigolactone, which is released by host plants, is known to induce Striga germination when host plants are nearby.

In a study published in August of this year the Striga receptors for this hormone, and the proteins responsible for striga germination were identified.

Striga plants are known to wither and die if they cannot find a host plant upon germination. Induction of early germination using synthetic hormones could therefore remove Striga populations before crops are planted. This work is vital in terms of regulating Striga populations in areas where they are hugely damaging to crop plants and people’s livelihoods.

Read the full study in Science here.

Striga, a parasitic plant. Also known as Witchweed.

Striga, a parasitic plant. Also known as Witchweed. Image from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture used under creative commons license 2.0

  1. Resurrection plants genome harvesting

Resurrection plants are a unique group of flora that can survive extreme water shortages for months or even years. There are more than 130 varieties in the world, and many researchers believe that unlocking the genetic codes of drought-tolerant plants could help farmers working in increasingly hot and dry conditions.

During a drought, the plant acts like a seed, becoming so dry that it appears dead. But as soon as the rains come, the shriveled plant bursts ‘back to life’, turning green and robust in just a few hours.

In November, researchers from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre in Missouri, US, published the complete draft genome of Oropetium thomaeum, a resurrection grass species.

O. thomaeum is a small C4 grass species found in Africa and India. It is closely related to major food feed and bioenergy crops. Therefore this work represents a significant step in terms of understanding novel drought tolerance mechanisms that could be used in agriculture.

Read the full paper in Nature here.

  1. Supercomputing overcomes major ecological challenge

Currently, one of the greatest challenges for ecologists is to quantify plant diversity and understand how this affects plant survival. For the last 500 years independent research groups around the world have collected this diversity data, which has made organization and collaboration difficult in the past.

Over the last 500 years, independent research groups have collected a wealth of diversity data. The Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN) are collecting and collating these data together for the Americas using high performance computing (HPC) and data resources, via the iPlant Collaborative and the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). This will allow researchers to draw on data right from the earliest plant collections up to the modern day to understand plant diversity.

There are approximately 120,000 plant species in North and South America, but mapping and determining the hotspots of species richness requires computationally intensive geographic range estimates. With supercomputing the BIEN group could generate and store geographic range estimates for plant species in the Americas.

It also gives ecologists the ability to document continental scale patterns of species diversity, which show where any species of plant might be found. These novel maps could prove a fantastic resource for ecologists working on diversity and conservation.

Read more about this story on the TACC website, here.

Making Plant Genomics Front Page News with an Emblematic Genome Project: The Bauhinia Flower

Keep Calm.

Bahunia is the national flower of Hong Kong, GigaScience is launching a crowdfunding campaign to learn more about the biological and genetic history of this flower.

By Scott Edmunds, Executive Editor, GigaScience Journal

‘Big Data’ is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in our lives, and we at GigaScience are big fans of approaches democratizing its utility through crowdfunding and crowdsourcing. With much mistrust and fear of genetic technologies there is also a huge need to educate and throw light on “what goes on under the hood” during the process of genomic sequencing and research.

After helping promote community genome and microbiome projects such as the Puerto Rican “peoples parrot”, Azolla Genome, Kittybiome, and the community cactus (previously highlighted in the Global Plant Council Blog), the team at GigaScience has finally decided to launch our own.

Inspired by our Hong Kong home, this month we’ve launched an exciting new crowdfunding project to help learn about the enigmatic biological and genetic history of the beautiful symbol of Hong Kong: the Bauhinia flower.

Hong Kong’s emblem is the beautiful flower of the Hong Kong Orchid Tree Bauhinia x blakeana: it is mysterious in origin, and lovely along the roadside and in any garden. Being used as a food crop in India and Nepal, Bauhinias are actually a legume rather than an orchid, and while a transcriptome has been sequenced as part of the 1KP project (Bauhinia tomentosa) no species of the genus has yet had its genome sequenced.

A Brief History of Bauhinia blakeana

It was first discovered in the 1880’s by the famous horticulturist Father Jean-Marie Delavey

The Bahunia flower

The Bahunia flower is the symbol of Hong Kong

growing on a remote mountainside in Hong Kong, but how it got there is a mystery – especially since it is sterile. The missionary collector subsequently propagated it in the grounds of the nearby Pokfulam Sanatorium, and from there it was introduced to the Hong Kong Botanic Gardens and across the world. Originally described as a new species in 1908, it was subsequently named after the Hong Kong governor Sir Henry Blake, who had a strong interest in botany. We have an opportunity to get a glimpse into this fascinating history by carrying out a crowdfunding project to determine its entire genetic make up.

In addition, it’s a project we are trying to get everyone involved in: from gardeners to botanists, historians to photographers, university researchers to school children – really, anyone interested in being a part of Hong Kong’s First Emblematic Genome Project and understanding the biological secrets of this unique flower.

Plant Genomics for the Masses

Teaming up with BGI Hong Kong and scientists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, this new crowdfunding project will use one of the best techniques to help uncover the secrets of any living being: genomic sequencing. While the cost of sequencing has crashed a million fold since the human genome project, plant genomes are still challenging. While Bauhinia have a relatively small genome (0.6C), being a hybrid means it will be very challenging to assemble using current short-read technologies. To get around this we are having to sequence the two likely parents first, pushing the reagent costs that we need to cover through crowdfunding up to about $10,000. Studies using individual genetic markers have shown that the species is likely a hybrid of two local species, Bauhinia variegata and Bauhinia purpurea, but this has yet to be confirmed at a genomic scale.

Genome sequencing is also one of the key technologies defining the 21st century, and a field in which Hong Kong has made major advances (for example in BGI Hong Kong’s giant sequencing capacity, as well circulating DNA diagnostics), though more effort is needed to engage and inform the general public.

Through sequencing the genome of our emblem to better understand where it came from; this will help to train local students to assemble and analyze the data – crucial skills needed for this field to advance; and engage and educate the public through local pride. Outreach and awareness-building is key, and we have already managed to get plant genomics and Bauhinia onto the front cover of the SCMP Sunday Magazine and on Hong Kong radio.

 

You can also access the YouKu version of the above video here.

Get involved!

The project seeks a variety of things from the community: at its most basic level, help in the form of donations can be provided at the project’s website. As a community project no contribution is too small, so please contribute via the crowdfunding page.

Furthermore, we’ll be carrying out community engagement and citizen science in the form of Bauhinia Watch, where people in the community can inform researchers about sightings of the flower and its relatives, and look for the hypothesized very rare individual plants that may produce seeds. Photographs along with location information are especially desired, and can be shared with the global community on social media (use the #BauhiniaWatch hashtag).

Also, getting involved in educating the community is key. The project’s website, in addition to explaining the science behind the project, provides information for identifying the different Bauhinia species, which can be fun for curiosity driven individuals of any age. Now is the time! Bauhinia blakeana is in peak flowering season in Hong Kong from November to March.

Moreover, this is a great opportunity for creating school projects, to learn about botany, evolution, the latest scientific technologies, and to participate in the research or carry out fundraising to join the Bauhinia community.

This will be the first Hong Kong genome project: funded by the public; sequenced in Hong Kong; assembled and analyzed by local students; and directly shared with the community.

Being Open Data advocates, all data produced will immediately be shared with our GigaDB platform, and all methods, analyses and teaching materials will be captured and made open to empower others to carry out similar efforts around the world.

Bauhinia Genome welcomes contributions and interest from across the globe, hoping this serves as a model to inspire and inform other national genome projects, and aid the development of crucial genomic literacy and skills across the globe; inspiring and training a new generation of scientists to use these tools to tackle the biggest threats to mankind: climate change, disease and food security. We have already collected enough money to fund the transcriptome, and the next goal is to get enough funds to start sequencing the genomes of the family members. To enable us to do this support us through our crowdfunding site, like us on Facebook or twitter, and help spread the word.

For more information and to support the project visit the website and crowdfunding page. follow us on Twitter @BauhiniaGenome, or on Facebook, and include the hashtag #BauhiniaWatch for any news or pictures you’d like to share on social media.

 

Bauhinia Postcard