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Studying Plant Genomes Leads to Better Farming

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The colorful diversity of potatoes from Peru. (Image credit: C Robin Buell, Department of Plant Biology, Michigan State University)

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

C. Robin Buell is a Professor of Plant Biology at Michigan State University. Buell studies plant genome sequences and deciphers the genomes of their pathogens. She discovers how components of the genome confer function and phenotype to both the plant and the microbes that feed on it.

Buell has published extensively in plant genomics and bioinformatics. Her recent work, published in the journal Nature, describes the genome of the potato, the world's third most important crop. Buell has worked on the genomes of Arabidopsis (small flowering plants related to cabbage and mustard), rice, potato, maize, switchgrass, pine, wheat, carrot, and recently, medicinal plants including ginseng, Echinacea, Gingko and Hoodia.

C Robin Buell, a resercher in the Department of Plant Biology at Michigan State University (Image credit: C Robin Buell, Department of Plant Biology, Michigan State University)

Name: C. Robin Buell Age: 47 Institution: Michigan State University Field of Study: Genomics/Bioinformatics

What inspired you to choose this field of study? I became interested in plants while I was an undergraduate student. In addition to a fascinating introductory botany class I got a job as a lab assistant in a plant physiology research lab, which led me to graduate school. I choose to study plant genes when the technology became available to sequence whole genomes and in 1999 I got an opportunity to work at The Institute for Genomic Research. At the time, The Institute for Genomic Research was one of the premiere institutes for genomics and I was able to contribute my knowledge of plant biology to the institute's efforts to understand the structure and function of plant genomes.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? This was from a mentor who I asked whether I should apply for a faculty position that was advertised. He told me: "You can't turn down a job offer you don't have." This is so true and unless you apply or test the dimensions of your world, you won't know what else was out there to do. This philosophy lead me to leave my position as an Assistant Professor at Louisiana State University after two years and start a faculty position at The Institute for Genomic Research to pursue genomics research.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? Although I did not do research as a child, I liked science throughout elementary, middle and high school. Since I grew up in a rural area (there were only three high schools in the entire county), we did not have a wide range of science classes, especially advanced-level classes. However, I was able to take biology, physics and chemistry courses, all of which were the most interesting and challenging classes. While I toyed with the idea of being a nuclear engineer, I choose to pursue biology in college.

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher? The coolest thing about being a research scientist is that every day at work is different. That is, the research is dynamic and one experiment leads to another. Thus, you are not easily bored by the science. So, while the training period seems long (four to five years for a Ph.D. plus another two to four years of postdoctoral training), your lifelong career will build on not only the knowledge you gained in courses and in research, but also the ability to generate a hypothesis, and then test it through rigorous experimentation and interpretation. Therefore, being in research allows you the opportunity to push the boundaries of not only your own knowledge, but human knowledge about biology.

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher? An effective researcher must be passionate for the science as barriers (administrative, financial and scientific) arise and in spite of these limitations, you need to champion your ideas, staff and results.

Tubers of two sequenced potatoes. (Image credit: C Robin Buell, Department of Plant Biology, Michigan State University)

What are the societal benefits of your research? My research enables a broader group of scientists to study biological and agricultural processes. For example, my work on the potato genome will allow potato breeders develop new, improved potato varieties quicker than the current 15 year timeframe it takes to develop a new variety.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? My postdoctoral mentor had the most impact on me as a researcher. Her can-do attitude coupled with seasoned advice was powerful in showing me that every problem (scientific, administrative and logistical) can be solved. This glass-half-full attitude is hard to find, let alone sustain and I was really fortunate to have worked with such a wonderful person who enlightened me as to how to approach the myriad of tasks and challenges encountered in research.

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most? Most people have the notion that university faculty members have the summer off and as such, we have a "cushy" job. In fact, the university pays our salary for only nine months of the year. If we work in the summer, we take our pay out of research grants we've been awarded or we go without pay. Stopping a research program for three months because you lack funding for your salary is not realistic and as a consequence, a lot of university researchers work without pay over the summer months because they can't pay their own salary.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? In my lab, we do a lot of computational work and we store backup tapes of terabytes of data in a fire safe. These tapes represent many years of research that cannot be recreated.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? Believe it or not, I listen to country music. I became a fan of country music when I worked at Louisiana State University and had five undergraduates working in my lab. At the time, I disliked country music, but since there were five students and I only spent a short period of time in the lab, I felt I could not ask them to change the station. As a consequence of this indoctrination, I became familiar the artists, their songs, and within a summer, I became a fan of country music.

Editor's Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.