Plant Sciences: A Minority Perspective

As in most other fields of science, ethnic minorities are not very common in plant science, but minority plant scientists do exist. Robin Arnette, our MiSciNet editor, tracked down and interviewed two of them, asking them about their careers so far, the state of minority careers in plant science, how the discipline has changed, and where it is headed.

The Scientists …

Beronda Montgomery-Kaguri, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, is an assistant professor in the Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratory and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. She studies the mechanisms utilized by photosynthetic organisms, including plants and cyanobacteria, for perceiving and responding to changes in their photoenvironment, including phenomena such as the efficiency of carbohydrate or sugar production, the timing of flower and seed production, and senescence.

Academic Background

  • 2001: University of California, Davis—Ph.D. in plant biology

  • 1996: University of Central Arkansas—M.S. in biology

  • 1994: Washington University in St. Louis—A.B. in biology

Hemayet Ullah, a native of Dhaka, Bangladesh, is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He studies the scaffold protein RACK1 (receptor for activated C-kinase 1) in Arabidopsis to determine how it coordinates different signal-transduction pathways. Ullah hopes to engineer crops that are resistant to environmental stress by manipulating conserved RACK1 genes in crops such as tomato, rice, brassica, soybean, and tobacco.

Academic Background

  • 2002: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill—Ph.D. in biology

  • 1998: North Carolina State University—M.S. in plant physiology

  • 1983: University of Dhaka—B.S. (Hons.) in botany

… And Their Perspectives

Did you always know you would study plants, or did a particular incident lead you into the field?

Beronda Montgomery-Kaguri: I was interested in becoming a biological patent lawyer as an undergraduate. But my interest in research biology quickly exceeded my interest in law. Upon taking a required course in plant physiology, I became fascinated with the developmental plasticity of plants and have been working with plant systems ever since.

Hemayet Ullah: I studied plants as an undergraduate, but [not until] I was a graduate student did I think I’d ever do plant research in my own lab. While doing my M.S. at NCSU, I participated in a class project involving a plant heterotrimeric G-protein, and it inspired me to become a plant biology researcher.

How was the field of plant science when you entered it? What topics were “hot areas” of research?

BMK: When I first began working in the plant sciences, plant development and physiology were prominent areas. The ability to carry out molecular biology experiments to elucidate phenomenon that had been observed for years was blossoming. However, this type of molecular experimentation was largely limited to studying one or a few genes at a time.

HU: When I entered plant sciences, “traditional” plant biology--research on the entire plant rather than specific genes or proteins--was more prominent. These disciplines included taxonomy, anatomy, ecology, and physiology.

How has the field of plant sciences changed since then in terms of research focus?

BMK: The availability of data about the structure of plant genes has allowed the plant sciences to explode in recent years. The sequencing of whole plant genomes has led to changes that allow scientists to monitor the impact of the biotic and abiotic factors in complex ways using genomics and proteomics.

HU: As with other disciplines, plant biology has been tremendously transformed in terms of techniques and study materials. Just compare a syllabus for a present-day plant physiology course to one from 10 years ago. Nowadays, the course may be called The Molecular Physiology of Plants. In every aspect of plant biology, the molecular view is gaining more emphasis while the traditional nature of plant biology studies is taking a back seat.

Was the discipline receptive to scientists of color when you entered?

BMK: Having always been the sole scientist of color or one of two scientists of color in the departments in which I have worked, it is very difficult to assess the receptiveness of the discipline to minority scientists. Certainly, many of the departments and societies that I have been a part of have programs aimed at providing minority scientists access to funding and encouraging attendance at national meetings. Nevertheless, the number of scientists of color in the plant sciences is still very low, as gauged by the numbers I encounter at professional meetings and other events.

HU: I believe the issue isn’t whether the field was receptive to minorities, but how minorities viewed the field overall. In general, minorities have had a misconception about careers in plant sciences. Rather than seeing it as a rewarding career, they instead choose more high-profile and lucrative jobs in medicine or engineering. Even if they consider research as a profession, they would most likely pick cancer or HIV/AIDS research, mistakenly thinking that these are the only areas that use cutting-edge technology. In their mind, plant research takes place in a greenhouse or in plots of land outside. To change this thinking, plant biologists must do a better job of explaining to minority science students that plant science offers similar opportunities as other cutting-edge disciplines.

Do you think minorities have made an impact on the field? If so, describe how and give a few specific examples.

BMK: Yes, a number of critical contributions have been made by minorities in the plant sciences. Undoubtedly, the most widely known are the early contributions of agriculturalist and plant chemist George Washington Carver. His seminal contributions, including the use of crop rotations to improve agricultural productivity, had wide-reaching effects that extend far beyond the scientific community.

HU: I believe minorities haven’t been able to make a serious impact on the field due to their extremely low numbers. The number of minorities working in the plant sciences even lags behind minorities in other life science areas. Although the American Society of Plant Biologists and other plant societies are working very hard to recruit and reward minority plant researchers, the results are not commensurate with their efforts. It saddens me not to see a significant presence of minority students at national meetings.

Are you involved in recruiting more students of color into plant sciences? Have your efforts been successful?

BMK: I am involved in a number of ways to increase the number of students of color in the plant sciences. As a former Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellow, I continue to participate in the community of Ford Fellows and in recruiting students to apply for support through the Ford Foundation Diversity Fellowships Program. I also work with students in the Charles Drew Science Program at Michigan State University, which seeks to provide support for minority students interested in pursuing degrees in science or mathematics. I am also a mentor for the American Society for Microbiology Minority Mentoring Program.

HU: Ever since I started my lab in 2004, I have been training minority undergraduate and graduate students in the area of plant science. I was very proud when [my first graduate student] was awarded the National Science Foundation’s East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes for U.S. Graduate Students award to spend the summer of 2005 in Japan working on Arabidopsis RACK1-mediated cellular signal transductions pathways. This student will graduate after this semester. In addition, my lab now has two undergraduate and two graduate students, and I offer short-term Independent Investigation projects for eight undergraduate students. I will consider my efforts successful when my students choose plant science as their career.

Where do you think the field is headed in the next 5 or 10 years? Will there be more or fewer opportunities for minority scientists in the future? Why or why not?

BMK: Based on the availability of complete genome sequences for two plants, Arabidopsis thaliana and rice, Oryza sativa L., plant scientists are now poised to elucidate the molecular bases of numerous aspects of plant growth and development. As plants and plant products impact agriculture, pharmaceutical manufacture, energy production, and the environment, the changes in the study of plants will be widely felt.

Given the advancements being made in the field, there are many opportunities for students to become involved in plant science research in academia and the public and private sectors. But targeted efforts will have to be made to significantly increase the number of minority scientists in the field. These efforts may be deterred by recent legal challenges to scholarship and fellowship programs supporting minorities. Thus, those of us in the field must be proactive and innovative in working to increase basal interest in the plant sciences.

These interest-building interventions should be implemented at the earliest stage possible, even for elementary students. Some of these efforts have been advanced by the Education Committee of the American Society of Plant Biologists. Most importantly, however, plant scientists must communicate more frequently and more effectively with the general public regarding the importance of plant science research to our daily lives. This is vitally important for attracting a diverse body of individuals to the field and improving public support of funding for plant science research.

HU: Research in plant genomics will give way to research in nanotechnology, particularly agricultural nanotechnology. This is an exciting and rapidly emerging technology that will allow us to manipulate and create tools for functional application. Discussion of ideas at a U.S. Department of Agriculture panel meeting included the development of a national plan involving the following: detection of small amounts of a chemical contaminant, virus, or bacteria in agricultural and food systems; bioprocessing from plant wastes; nucleic acid bioengineering for building nanowires; nanomembranes; microfluidics for monitoring of food and water supply; plant and animal health; and the environment .

Plant science is often the most neglected area of science. Until we, the plant biology community, come up with a master plan to attract more minority plant biologists, we will continue to see the decline of minority participation in the plant sciences.

Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet.

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