Introducing “Plant Cell Alumni”: Dr Paul Hunter!

It is with great pleasure that I can announce a new category on this blog: Plant Cell Alumni!

This series will feature interviews with people who at one point were active plant cell researchers, but are now doing something different. I hope to highlight the vast variety of possibilites open to plant scientists, no matter if they decided to change fields, to work in a science-related job or left science completely. If you would like to participate, please drop me an email and I will send you further instructions.

I am very happy that Dr Paul Hunter agreed to participate and send his responses. Paul and I did our PhDs roughly at the same time and share good (and some slightly terrifying) memories of scientific conferences!


1) What was your research about when you were a plant cell biologist?

I did my PhD in Lorenzo Frigerio’s lab at the University of Warwick, investigating the different types of vacuoles in Arabidopsis. The two main types of vacuole can either store or degrade proteins depending on the developmental stage and tissue they’re in (nicely animated in the vacuole song!). To look at them and determine where the different types are located, I fused fluorescent proteins to different isoforms of a family of proteins called TIPs which sit in the membranes of the different types of vacuole.

2) What are you doing now?

Now, I’m working as a Post-Doc in the MRC Centre for Developmental Neurobiology at King’s College London. I work on the visual system of zebrafish, so a pretty big shift from one model organism to another! Specifically, I use functional calcium imaging to try to figure out what the brain does with the information it receives from the eye. I do this by injecting a calcium dye into the brain and imaging at the same time as I playing lots of different moving stimuli to the eye. With some post-imaging analysis, I’m trying to work out what types of motion stimuli the visual cells in the brain respond to.

A 7 day old larval zebrafish imaged from the top. It’s head is to the right, tail to the left. Red arrows point to the cells in the brain that receive visual input.

3) How did you make the decision to do something else?

After my PhD, I made the decision to move to London to live with my now wife. I knew I wanted to stay in research, but there wasn’t a lot of plant biology research in London – particularly not on the imaging side of things that I loved. So, I decided to widen my net a little(!) – and happened upon a zebrafish imaging lab at King’s College. I decided that although I loved plant biology (and still do!), what really interested me was imaging things going on within an organism in real time.

4) What useful skills did you pick up as plant cell biologist?

Loads. People don’t believe me when I say that what I do now in zebrafish is really not that different to what I did with Arabidopsis. The molecular biology I do is the same, the occasional biochemistry I do is the same and the imaging is very similar.

5) What advice would you give to students?

From my experience, I would say try not to get too absorbed in one subject area. I read a quote once that said something like: “As a child you know nothing about anything. As you study, you learn a little about everything. As an expert, you learn more and more about less and less until you know absolutely everything about absolutely nothing.” So, however you do it, try to read something – maybe once a month about something new/different.

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A movie showing fluorescence changes (∆f/f) detected within the visual part of the brain in response to a series of moving stimuli that were played to the eye (note: slightly compressed for the blog).



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