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Fruitful Pursuits: Research Careers in Plant Science

Why would people want to study plants? What's the draw? Plants (and other things that photosynthesize) are the world's primary producers and have been converting the sun's energy into usable chemical form, including food for animals, for billions of years. Fast-forwarding toward the present day (and the current context), plants have been the genesis of numerous advances in biology as a whole. The science of genetics is built on Gregor Mendel's work on peas; Barbara McClintock discovered transposable elements--"jumping genes"--while working on maize; the science of "RNA interference" and its potential therapeutic applications derives from early studies of cosuppression in transgenic purple petunias.

Fossil fuels, of course, are derived from plants, and a great deal of attention of late--including a Science magazine editorial by Koonin and other articles in the 27 January 2006 issue--is being paid to research to figure out how to skip the intervening several hundred thousand years so that we can go efficiently, and more or less directly, from plants to fuel for vehicles and power plants. Basic and applied research on plants supported the green revolution, and as the world's human population continues to grow, we will increasingly rely on an ever-deepening understanding of plant biology and on agronomic improvements to keep us all fed, clothed, and mobile.

So, to anyone who asks me "Why plants?" I answer: Who wouldn't want to be a part of this kind of science?

The majority of plant biologists work somewhere in the continuum from basic plant biology on one end--the main focus of this feature--to the development of agricultural products on the other. But plant biologists occupy many other branches on the career tree.

I am aware of no more effective metaphor that diagrams careers for scientists than the "Career Tree" that appeared in a 2002 report from the European Science Foundation and the Human Frontier Science Program. Rooted, appropriately, in public education and outreach, the trunk of the tree rises up the academic degree ladder, branching out toward various careers. Careers in education and academia branch to the right, and careers--well, everywhere else--branch to the left. The tree, regular readers will not be surprised to learn, leans left, in that there are many more--and more varied--careers branching out from the "nonacademic" side of the trunk.

The tree metaphor, of course (see box to the right), has particular resonance in the current context, a series of articles about plant scientists. In plant biology as in other disciplines, a profusion of professional opportunities is available to the well-informed, well-prepared, and well-networked plant biologist. And although the focus of this special feature is on academic science, you'll find plant biologists in just about every branch of the career tree. Individuals I met while I was in training are now pursuing careers as teachers, researchers, journalists, lawyers, government scientists, industry scientists, and architects. One even became a vintner. These plant scientists found their professional niches the same way that most scientists do: through a combination of hard work, information gathering, serendipity, and networking.

Networking, in my view, deserves a place of honor in the box of essential career-related tools. The success of several of the scientists profiled in this feature resulted in part from their development of a professional network. But networking is no less important outside academe. My own career has benefited directly from networking connections, although being in the right place at the right time has also helped. As my responsibilities have changed, I have come to realize that professional membership organizations like AAAS (the publisher of Science and and the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB)--the organization I direct--provide among the most effective networking opportunities that you can find, leading more often than you might imagine to new professional opportunities, as well as building a strong and lasting sense of community.

So, why study plants? It's time to hear from the interviewees.

By merging biochemistry with genetics, Berkeley's Kris Niyogi studies how the unicellular green algae Chlamydomonas, which can survive even in total darkness, responds to excess light. Niyogi also studies Arabidopsis; he credits the decision to maintain two model systems as one of the keys to his success.

U.K.-based Giles Oldroyd studies signaling and the symbiosis between bacteria and legumes. We talked with Oldroyd about his work on this, one of the most complex symbiotic interactions found in the natural world. We learned that for all three--scientist, plant, and bacterium--networking is a key to success.

You might call Shin-ya Miyagishima a jack-of-all-trades, because he uses a wide array of methodologies to paint a coherent picture of the evolution of chloroplasts and mitochondria. But unlike the typical jack, Miyagishima is a master. How does he do it? We asked him … and his postdoc adviser.

Unless you count green, plant science--like most areas of science--is, despite its many virtues, a rather colorless profession, because scientists of color are relatively few and far between. We tracked down two of them-- Hemayet Ullah, an assistant professor at Howard University and Beronda Montgomery-Kaguri, an assistant professor at Michigan State University--and got them to share their perspectives on being scientists of color in the field of plant science.

Building bridges between math and plant science has been the driver of Pierre Dutilleul's career for nearly 2 decades. How did a mathematics graduate branch out into a career in plant science, bringing together his passions for theoretical and experimental work? We asked, and he answered.

Finally, guest editor and former Next Wave editor Crispin Taylor--he's now the executive director of ASPB (and the author of this introductory essay)--offers some additional thoughts on plants, people, professional societies, and other topics.