Improving Plant Performance


My name is Monika Kuzma. Four years ago, I made the rewarding career transition from bench scientist at Queen's University to research coordinator at a start-up biotech company, Performance Plants Inc., which is based in Kingston, Ontario. Here's my story:

Biology had been a source of fascination for me from a very early age, and I pursued this interest as an undergraduate in science at York University in Toronto. Nevertheless, when I was taking animal biology courses in my second year, I realized that I disliked animal dissection and that plant biology was far more exciting to me. I chose my courses accordingly, but never with a career or job in mind--I simply loved to learn about all different aspects of plant biology. To this end, I applied for summer research jobs in the biology department at York. That way, I was able to satisfy my thirst for studying plants year-round. It also proved useful for making contacts: I eventually applied to do graduate studies in plant physiology at Queen's University, in the lab of a scientist with whom I had worked the previous summer. His area of research--nitrogen fixation in legume plants--interested me, and his enthusiasm for his subject was inspiring.

In my master's degree project, I investigated the effects of temperature on nitrogen fixation in soybean plants, and because Queen's offered a "mini-M.Sc." as a fast track into the Ph.D. program, I took that opportunity. Life as a graduate student was great. It was not without stress and long hours, but these were expected and self-imposed. There were interesting courses, and I acquired some valuable teaching experience.

When I graduated in 1995 with my doctorate, I faced the inevitable question, "What do I want to do when I grow up?" I knew that I enjoyed doing research, so staying in academia and becoming a professor seemed the next logical step. To get there, I knew I'd need to gain some postdoctoral research experience, which is usually done by moving to a different lab at a different university. But by this time, there was one small problem: I was married to a plant physiologist based at Queen's, and a move from Kingston and my husband was simply out of the question.

The next best solution was to stay at Queen's in the lab where I completed my Ph.D. but to expand my knowledge and technical skills by doing a postdoc in plant biochemistry. This involved spending some time learning techniques at the University of Western Australia, Perth. The postdoc also gave me more exposure to teaching: I had an opportunity to teach a couple of undergraduate courses and quickly realized that teaching was not my piece of cake. This was a significant discovery, because an academic position in most Canadian universities would entail a significant teaching load. My future was thus becoming more complicated, and the question of "What do I want to do when I grow up?" was starting to nag me daily.

It was then that a great new opportunity arose. A number of Queen's biology professors got together and decided to form a biotech company based at the university. The aim of the company, Performance Plants Inc., was to create crop plants that perform better under adverse environmental conditions. At the time the spinoff was born, I was on my second postdoc with one of the founders. He gave me the opportunity to work with transgenic plants, specifically to assess cold and frost tolerance of transgenic canola. While I was doing this research, Performance Plants Inc. was growing. But the company consisted mainly of great molecular biologists producing exciting transgenic plants, and what they really needed was a plant physiologist who could assess these new plants. Suddenly, everything fell into place; this seemed a perfect job for me.

I joined the company in 1998 as a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) postdoctoral industrial research fellow. (Details of the program and a list of participating companies can be found here.) It was a great opportunity to test the waters of industry, and I loved the job. This was research with direct application, where the final goal was not just a paper in a journal or a thesis, but a product: a better crop plant for the farmer. The ability to publish the work was still present, but it was not a priority. In fact, any new discoveries had to be protected by a patent first before any public presentation of the data. In this new job, I could use the skills I had gained as a plant physiologist and contribute greatly to the advancement of the product. At the same time, I had a great opportunity to learn much about the molecular aspects of the work, from gene construction to plant transformation and screening. Another exciting part of the job was being involved in the development and structure of the company, which is constantly evolving. Being part of that process in its early days was very exciting and challenging.

The NSERC industrial postdoc turned into a permanent job after 1 year. My current position with the company is plant physiology research coordinator. In fact, there are two of us in this position because of the sheer volume of technologies that are being developed. Together, we coordinate all of the physiological assessments of the transgenic plants produced. Our team of researchers consists of four full-time people, plus numerous undergraduate students who join the company throughout the year and during the summer. My assistant and I plan all of the experiments. I'm often involved in data collection, but the fun part for me is data analysis, interpretation of results, and, believe it or not, writing reports.

The pace of work is very different from research in academia, which can be, in some labs, a trifle leisurely in my opinion. I have to be so much more organised in industry. Experiments are planned well in advance, with definite deadlines and specific goals. The very first goal is to prove that any new technology works in a model plant and then to protect it with a patent. If it does not work, you move on to another project, regardless of how interesting it might be scientifically. The second goal is to prove that the technology works in a crop plant in field conditions.

A large portion of my job involves planning the work of the people on my team. There must also be constant communication with everyone else in the company. Understanding the history of the plants we assess and the process and mechanism of transgenic plant production, as well as their screening and advancement through a number of generations, is also very important. But the aspect of the work I enjoy most, and one that I think differentiates research in a small biotech company from research in larger institutions and a great many university departments, is that competition is replaced by cooperation. I work with bright, energetic people who share a common enthusiasm for the work they do and understand that open communication of ideas, and the synergy it creates, are essential for the attainment of our goals: better crop plants for an increasingly harsh world.

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