Following my Curiosity – From tulips to fundamental science

Professor Dame Caroline Dean – who is one of the five L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science laureates for 2018, explains how her interest in flowering plants and a curiosity to understand how this works has guided through her career as a scientist.

What advice would you give to those who want to pursue a Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) career?

I would encourage everyone to follow their curiosity. When you’re really interested in something then you’ll be motivated to find out more about how that thing works. This is how most STEMM careers work – we ask questions, and the journey to the answer is what we do every day as scientists.

Don’t let others put you off, or make you feel like you can’t achieve something because of your gender, or what you look like or where you were born. Those barriers pale into insignificance if you have a genuine curiosity for something.

Women in STEMM industries are still underrepresented as compared to their male counterparts. What can be done to improve female representation in science?

There is a need for role models to encourage the next generation of scientists. I hope this year as a L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science laureate I can provide something positive for a wide range of people. As female scientists we can raise aspirations by being more visible and honest about what a career in a STEMM subject is really like, and how a diversity of personalities and skills is essential to success.

The Athena SWAN Charter is a useful scheme here in the UK which recognises organisations who are working to improve in areas where women are traditionally underrepresented. Their bronze, silver and gold awards give a visible sign that the organisation understands the values of a diverse workforce.

Now there are also many schemes that enable women to have families, and to work in STEMM subjects, you can do both. For instance, here at the John Innes Centre there are family and career break initiatives, support for attending conferences, or fellowships designed specifically to enabling women to return to STEMM careers following the birth of a child.

You are a distinguished and award-winning scientist in your field. Tell us about the importance of role models and mentorship.

My passion for science was born through watching Jacques Cousteau on TV as a child, really enjoying lab experiments at university and then working with visionary scientists in my early career. Watching those minds linking apparently unrelated results into a unified picture describing a new concept was inspirational.

Is there a need for workplaces to become more culturally inclusive so women do not face barriers but can reach their full potential?

Indeed, work places need to be culturally inclusive, but the greatest challenge for a woman’s advancement is herself. Constantly working just a little out of one’s comfort zone increases self-confidence and enables those apparently unattainable goals to be reached.

How can STEM industries attract more women and girls into the field?

By helping to nurture their scientific interest from an early age and fanning the desire to discover.

“Excellence THEN relevance.” It was the persistent message from the Chief Executive at BBSRC, Professor Julia Goodfellow, in the late 1990s.

This struck a chord with me. I’ve spent most of my career at the John Innes Centre, where fundamental research into plant and microbial science is central to our ongoing success.

The impact of these new discoveries may not be obvious at the outset. It’s not always easy to see where relevance will appear but excellent science will always have impact.

Professor Goodfellow’s message has been very influential in my own research. Many years ago, as a post-doctoral researcher in California in the 1980s I’d noticed the seasons were less distinct than in my home in the north of England. I was intrigued and began to investigate why.

Then there was a moment that cemented my interest. I went out and bought some tulip bulbs, and the man who sold them to me said: “Don’t forget to put them in the fridge for six weeks before you plant them.” That moment triggered my interest in how plants align their development with the seasons.

Many years later, when I applied for a position at the John Innes Centre I proposed to work on vernalization – the requirement for prolonged cold before a plant flowers. Commercial plant breeders had exploited this process to breed winter and spring-sown varieties, but we had no clue as to the molecular mechanism.

I began with three research questions: why do some varieties of plants not flower until they have had cold? How does the plant know it’s had prolonged cold? And how have those molecular mechanisms enabled adaptation to different climates?

All three questions led to a focus on the regulation of a single gene, Flowering Locus C (FLC).

FLC acts as a brake to flowering, if the plant is making this protein it stays vegetative: it won’t flower. Interesting and conserved mechanisms involving non-coding RNAs and chromatin (the interwoven DNA and protein that makes up our chromosomes) underlie all three questions we had posed. How much the gene is expressed affects whether plants need to overwinter. Winter is registered by progressively switching off the gene in more and more cells. Adaptation is the result of small changes that affect the regulation of the gene.

So, after 30 years my research has come down to a very detailed study of basic principles of gene regulation. But it is this same regulation that is important in humans too. Instructions are given to genes in the embryo (human or plant), but the initial instructions don’t stay around all the time, instead the instruction is remembered. The memory is passed down from mother to daughter cells by epigenetic regulation- through non-coding RNA and chromatin regulation.

You will read about epigenetics everywhere at the moment – in the context of how the environment affects our genes. When memory mechanisms go wrong and genes turn on and off at the wrong place, disease is the result: most cancers carry genes that are expressed in the wrong place.

What is also amazing is that we can now build on our fundamental understanding of the vernalisation mechanism to help plant breeders produce Brassica varieties that respond to winter temperatures in predictable ways. New varieties could flower earlier, or be resistant to cold snaps, where previously premature flowering led to a glut of certain varieties in the supermarkets.

 

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