Women in Science: Thinking like a vegetable

LOrealZSL Soapbox 389 218x300 Women in Science: Thinking like a vegetableThis is the last in a whole series of blogs posted at this site over the past two weeks, written by the participants at a somewhat unusual science communication event, SoapBox Science – I encourage you to go back and look at the other blogs for a fuller picture.

The event was organized by the London Zoological Society and the L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science programme. They managed to persuade a dozen of us to stand, literally, on boxes on the South Bank and talk about our science to passers by. Why would we all agree to do such a thing? For me, this event was a great opportunity to ride several of my hobby horses at once.

I am a plant biologist. Plant biology is rather a Cinderella science, so I always welcome the opportunity to evangelise. Plants are the foundation for virtually all the ecosystems and all the agricultural systems on the planet, so they are rather important to us. But in the UK, food security and environmental sustainability, although rising up the agenda, seem like less of a problem than cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Even those interested in conservation gravitate towards cute animals. Animals seem to be inherently more engaging.  Plants can look pretty, but they don’t seem to do anything. If you want to be sure to get a group of children interested in plants you have to bring along a venus fly trap- it moves and it eats things, so we understand it immediately. We strongly associate movement with action, and we understand actions with which we can empathise. So at first sight, plants have two huge counts against them-medical science seems more important, and they are boring because they don’t do anything.

Well, as I have said, given that pretty much every ecosystem and agricultural system depends on plants, and maintaining a sustainable and secure food supply is year on year an increasing challenge, understanding plants is arguably more important than curing diseases. What’s more, in my view it is exactly because plants do things differently that they are so interesting. They make themselves quite literally out of thin air. It’s amazing. Just from carbondioxide, water and a few minerals, you get an oak tree, all it powered by light energy. To collect up these basic ingredients, plants need a huge surface area, with roots exploring the soil to collect water and minerals, and leaves in the air to collect light energy and carbondioxide. It is not surprising that they don’t move around, they have different priorities, more like filter feeding animals. Just because they are not moving, doesn’t mean they are not actively manipulating their environment and calculating how best to deploy their resources, for example making more roots instead of more shoots if minerals are limiting. My research is about trying to understand how plants make these complicated decisions, with no central processing mechanism like the brain of animals. The answer seems to lie in a network of chemical messengers (hormones) that move about the plant from the shoot to the root or the root to the shoot, carrying information about nutrient and water availability, light quality, or the health of each shoot tip. By understanding how this network works, it should be possible to breed better crops and develop new farming practices to allow stable high yields with lower inputs. I find plants endlessly interesting and I am perfectly happy to wax lyrical about them to anyone willing to listen, which at least a few people on the South Bank were.

And that brings me to my second hobby horse. Scientists may be interested in rather unusual things, but they are in fact people, who come in all the usual shapes and sizes and genders. You would think from much of the media coverage that we were aliens from the planet Boff, commonly referred to as Boffins, or robots working tirelessly and unfeelingly to turn the world into some cold, sterile place comfortable only for robots. In fact we are people, often rather idealistic people, who want to understand how the world works because it’s interesting and because it’s helpful. Of course, because we are people, we get it wrong sometimes. This is not because science doesn’t work or doesn’t help. On the contrary, being wrong is an essential part of the way science works to move understanding forward. Given how badly we need science to contribute to solving some of the huge problems we are facing, I think it is extremely important that science is brought back into the mainstream. It’s a normal part of what people do, not a separate thing done by Boffins in clean white labs with no reference to the world or the people in it. So scientists on boxes on the South Bank is exactly where science should be. In fact we shouldn’t really be on the boxes, but I am only 5’ 3”, so the box was helpful.

Professor Ottoline Leyser is a plant biologist at Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge University

She is working with the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Programme and The Zoological Society of London to encourage more young women to pursue careers in science.

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  • marcrates

    This was a very interesting article. I really like the idea behind getting science out in the open and fresh in people’s minds. The United States is behind in math and science education, and in IMHO it is because we don’t do a good enough job presenting it. All our top sales people and presenters are peddling widgets and insurance! :-) We need a little good old fashioned grassroots evangelizing for things like this. 

  • FirstAdvisor

    This article was delightful, and very entertaining. I fully support the presence and increase of women in science. However, I must describe the impregnable restriction of simple biological fact. Approximately 85pc of the people on Earth are plainly not intelligent enough to pass science courses in university, let alone work in the field. About 98pc are not intelligent enough to make any significant contribution to any science. That does leave a lot of people around the globe of course, 140 million out of seven billion.

    Unfortunately, all of those people are divided among all the other important occupations, politics and the senior public service of every nation, law, finance, engineering, corporate executives, and so on, in which virtually every form of work is far more lucrative than science. One method of changing the numbers would be to change the standard renumeration package from companies for patents, only for scientists and engineers. As things stand now, the legal position of companies who employ scientists and engineers who make a discovery worth a fortune in patents, is that the employee is paid a salary to do that work and make those discoveries, and those salaries are the sole obligation of the company to the employee. The scientist who makes the discovery, and the engineer who creates the new invention, are not entitled, ever, in any share of the patent, and its income. Consistently, judges and courts around the world have agreed this corporate policy is just and even fair.

    If the system was changed, to allow only scientists and engineers a tiny share of any patent income based on their discoveries and inventions,  whether it was normally 2.5 percent or usually 0.25 percent, the planet would swiftly find many more men and women entering the fields of science and engineering. This is one possible change of method that would work to achieve the objectives desired. As Prof. Leyser says, scientists are people, too, with just as much ambition to earn a decent living as all the rest of us. Watching the company they work for rake in hundreds of millions from their discoveries and inventions, while they take home about $100,000 a year, can be very frustrating and discouraging.

  • John

    I’ve known many women who think like vegetables

  • habitableworld

    Plants, especially wild ones, are more neglected in the US, where Big Pharma and the lawn industry destroy bird habitat–and also natural fruiting species, many of which I can’t even name.  Tupelo, winterberry, even poison ivy provide some overwintering species sustenance of last resort in New England. My neighbors who fled the suburbs are busy creating burbs and lawns by poisoning viny trendrils–like wild strawberries–that encumber walking. That very encumbrance the ground-nesting Woodcock require, so we have lost them in the last few years of professional landscaper attacks on wild species.  We have also lost most ground-feeding birds like Quail; their loss has augmented the insects they ate such as ticks which bear Lyme disease, now flourishing.

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