Women in Science: Thinking like a vegetable
This 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. www.womeninscience.co.ukTagged in: plant biology, plants, science
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