‘Faces of Plant Cell Biology’ is back! Today Dr Juliet Coates from the University of Birmingham talks about her research on various ‘green things’, her career path and what advice she would give to students.
1) What is your research about?
I am interested in development: how a multicellular organism is formed and how it gains complexity and an organised structure. I am also interested in how these developmental mechanisms evolved. Currently our research uses various “green things” of varying complexity, which evolved at different times, to address these questions.
A lot of our work is with a simple, early-evolving land plant, a moss called Physcomitrella, which is easy to manipulate in the lab, and resembles the first plants that made the transition to land from the water. We compare developmental mechanisms in moss to those in Arabidopsis, a well-studied, later-evolving and more complex flowering plant. We try and understand the changes that occurred, and the shared characteristics, in developmental mechanisms during the evolution of land plants.
All land plants had a water-dwelling algal ancestor, so we also work with green algae, which became multicellular independently of land plants. Again, we want to discover the shared and different developmental mechanisms between algae and land plants. We use little microalgae that form simple colonies, and also macroalgae (green seaweeds) that form structures as large and complex as those seen in some land plants.
We hope that by understanding algal and plant evolution and development better, we will be in a better position to control and manipulate the growth and development of plants and algae, and improve them as sources of food, fuel and high-value chemicals such as medicines and nutritional supplements.
2) What is the best and the worst thing about your work?
- Freedom to ask questions that really interest me – every day is different and exciting, and you are never bored. This year I have a research fellowship from the Royal Society/Leverhulme Trust and so I am back in the lab having lots of fun doing hands-on research and lab work again.
- The flexibility of an academic job means I can work my part-time hours around the school run and so look after my 5-year old son as well – I finish my working day at home in the evenings with the computer, when my son is asleep!
- That moment when you are teaching a class and everyone is enthusiastic, understanding something new and asking questions!
- The research-funding situation: the pot is limited and so plenty of excellent science does not get funded, and this is against a culture where there is pressure to bring research money in to your department.
- Anything to do with the REF (a government assessment of how well university departments carry out their research).
- Not enough hours in the day, especially on a part time contract, and inevitably it is the research time that gets squeezed when you have teaching and administration to carry out too.
3) How did you become a plant scientist?
It was the Arabidopsis genome sequence that did it for me: Arabidopsis was the first plant to have its genome sequenced, so we knew the identity of every gene that made up an Arabidopsis plant. That is a powerful tool if you want to study development. I had previously worked on an amoeba, Dictyostelium (for my PhD) and a worm, C. elegans (for my postdoc), both of which had sequenced genomes. The Arabidopsis genome made it possible to understand the function of individual genes of your choice in a model plant. I was lucky to get a fellowship from the Gatsby Charitable Foundation (a Sainsbury family charity), who were trying to encourage non-plant scientists into plant research. So, I was in the right place at the right time to study how previously uncharacterized genes affect plant development.
I did a zoology/molecular biology degree, and always avoided all the plant options at School, so I had to learn fast, so I could apply my molecular biology and genetics knowledge to plants. I am still learning: it is always fascinating and is a lot of fun.
4) What do you do to get your mind off work?
Look after my boy, read books, swim, do yoga, gardening, occasionally run, and occasionally resort to strong drink :-)
5) What advice would you give to students?
- Firstly, when you are choosing a research project at any level (undergraduate, masters, PhD), choose whatever fascinates you the most, not what you think might look best on your CV. Only a passionate interest in the subject will give you the motivation to carry the project through in the best possible way.
- Secondly, never be afraid to have ideas, or to ask questions!
- Thirdly, particularly for women, don’t be afraid of embarking on an academic career. Being a woman in science often gets bad press, but the culture is changing and will only get better. It is a career that can lend itself to flexible working and it is always interesting. For me, doing this job part-time while being a single mum gives me just about everything I need. You can do it too, whatever your situation, and there are people out there who will support you.