From Editor to Teacher: Views from Both Sides of the Scientific System. An Interview with Plant Physiology Monitoring Editor Prof. Ronald Pierik, PhD

By Guada Fernández-Milmanda, PhD, Plant Physiology Assistant Features Editor

Professor Ronald Pierik completed his PhD in the lab of Drs. Eric Visser and Hans de Kroon in Radboud University, The Netherlands, researching the role of ethylene in neighbor-induced shade avoidance. After completing his PhD, he visited the lab of Dr. Garry Whitelam at Leicester University to refine his skills in photobiology while also receiving his first Far-Red LEDs.

Ronald went on to begin his career at Utrecht University, first as a postdoc and later as professor in plant ecophysiology and plant photobiology. His current research focuses in phytochrome signaling and shade avoidance as well as the interplay between these and (a)biotic stress, nutrient signaling, and root development, using mostly Arabidopsis and tomato.

Guada Fernández-Milmanda got her PhD in Molecular Biology.  She used to oscillate between the Instituto de Investigaciones Fisiologicas y Ecologicas Vinculadas a la Agricultura (IFEVA-UBA, Argentina) and the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology (Germany). She is interested on how environmental signaling shapes plant defenses. As part of her dissertation project, she uncovered a molecular mechanism behind the interaction between competition cues, sensed by the phyB-PIF module, and jasmonate signaling. She loves reading and talking about science, but also, about One Piece.

Fun Facts

  • A chapter of Ronald’s PhD thesis was published in Plant Physiology, which now has over 200 citations.
  • His lab webpage hosts a playlist with 100%, totally related, photobiology songs. Check it out!
  • Together with Prof. Christa Testerink, he hosts the “Plant Moves” website where featuring time-lapse videos of plants moving!

Guada: Why did you choose to be an editor for Plant Physiology?
I was asked to join the editorial board and I accepted because I like Plant Phys a lot. It is a very solid journal, with a particularly high standard of work. It is relatively broad, open to quite a variety of approaches in plant science, like genetics, physiology, or molecular biology. What I like the most is that it is always asking functional questions, rarely completely descriptive or completely transcriptomics without any function.

Also—I didn’t know this when I accepted the invitation—but it turns out that there is such a nice group of people working together there, some I hadn’t met before. That is quite a nice side perk of being an editor for Plant Phys.

G: As an editor, you act as a mediator between the authors, who have a paper they believe is great, and the reviewers, who sometimes have different opinions. Do you find this challenging?
Sometimes, but most of the time it is not very difficult. Good reviewers write very clear reports and give convincing arguments of why something must be revised or even rejected. The nice thing about science is that we are all sensitive to scientific arguments. If a reviewer does a good job identifying and explaining a weak point in a manuscript, it is quite difficult to disagree with them. In my experience, even if you must initially reject the submission, the reviewing process really helps the authors to improve their paper. When you get reviewed you always first think, “Oh crap, do I really have to do new experiments?” But then, when you are rewriting a section, you realize it has become better. I’ve certainly experienced that myself, and I bet you felt the same, Guada.[1] The review process is sometimes a struggle, but often positive. It only becomes challenging when the reviewer is opinionated, without providing arguments. However, that rarely happens, because through the years, you learn who are helpful, constructive reviewers.


G: Do you also think that students can be good reviewers, or do you prefer more experienced reviewers?
It is a hard question to answer generally. In principle, a PhD student can be a good reviewer. It would be difficult when you’re just starting your PhD because you have little experience. But at the end of your PhD, you’re probably going to be as valuable as reviewer as a postdoc. You’ve read a lot, written your own manuscripts, and gone through the process of science. The tricky part is that, as an editor, I know my own PhD students, and some from other groups in my university or groups with whom I collaborate. But that circle is relatively small. I have no clue who are PhD students in groups that I do not interact with. They haven’t yet published, or I’ve never met them, so I just don’t know who they are. The difference with more senior people is that the chances of seeing them in a meeting or reading papers of them are higher. So, when I look for reviewers, I more frequently come up with their names.

G: As an editor, you must handle lots of papers. How do you choose which ones are worth sending to review? Do you have a sixth sense?
No, no sixth sense. That wouldn’t be fair for authors, if I just have a nice or bad feeling about the submission. But you’re right: many papers are never sent out to review, so a decision must be made by the editors. According to the procedures of Plant Phys, you cannot make the decision by yourself. We have what is called a “consultation,” an online discussion about the paper. The editor invites 2 or 3 people to join and give feedback. If all agree that the paper is not going for review, authors get a rapid decline. When I am handling a manuscript, I always follow the results section and the figures to check if authors do what they’ve promised in the cover letter. That’s how I start weighing a manuscript.

G: How do you balance your duties as an editor with your responsibilities as a researcher, teacher, and mentor?
That’s the eternal struggle of all scientists. All of them take quite a lot of time if you want to do it well. And of course, you want to do it well. As an editor you can make or break a paper with your decision. Even if you are not doing it alone. You can consult with other editors, and you have the reviewers’ reports, but at the end, you are the one who’s making the decision. And as researcher, you want your papers to get published well. That impacts on your career. So, you really must do this carefully, which means that you must spend a lot of time on it. And it is the same for teaching and mentoring—there is no real magic to it. Always ask yourself, “Do I have the time to do it, or should I pass on this particular task?” For example, when I get asked to review a paper, I would decline if I felt that I cannot do it justice because I don’t have the time. However, as an editor I find this harder because there aren’t too many editors. So, I usually handle a paper when I am asked, which means that I just spend more time on a particular day at work. I don’t let that go at the expense of my mentoring or teaching, but I think it does go sometimes at the expense of my time to think, read, and write, or sometimes my free time. Usually, I handle between 15 and 25 papers per year. This year, however, I was the associate editor for special issue on architecture and plasticity, and handled many more.

G: It must be interesting to be on both sides of the scientific system.
It’s very helpful, and you learn a lot. Then, when you submit a paper, you think, “What can I do to make the process easier?” For example, having a nice layout, being very clear, and avoiding overselling the story. People are happy with what they see when it matches what they expect. And yes, it does make you realize how important titles can be, indeed.

G: As an author, how do you decide to which journal to submit a paper?
R: Through the years you develop a better sense of which journals are a good match with that paper and which are not. At the beginning, you just feel you should aim high, even if you don’t know if it’s a good fit or not. You can discuss with your PI which is a good journal to submit and use their experience. There is a little bit of luck in here too. If it is rejected, that doesn’t necessarily mean that was a bad idea.

G: What is your favorite paper? You can choose one of your own and one from another group.
R: From someone else, my favorite is the one I use the most in teaching, which is a science paper by Carlos Ballaré from 1990. I am bit hesitant saying that’s my favorite because it was published over 30 years ago, but it’s such a beautiful paper. The idea of the Far-Red reflection and phytochrome signaling was already there, but he did such beautiful experiments to causally link these to neighbor detection. It’s an example of how cool, but also, how elegant experimental science can be. But my own, I find that very difficult.

G: I can tell you what my favorite papers of yours are. The one I check the most is from Mieke de Wit, in 2013, about Far-Red and Jasmonic and Salicylic acid responses. My favorite review is “The art of being flexible,” which explains everything clearly. I’d recommend it to everyone who wants to check, or re-check the basis of plant plasticity. I was formed as a molecular biologist, with almost no idea about anything bigger than a cell. This kind of review makes me think of plants as organisms. I love that.
Oh, that’s so nice to hear. And it’s funny, I wrote that one with my wife and it was the first time we wrote something together. We feared that it was too forced to bring our two fields together. So, it’s nice to know that you find this different. Although, I would rather not choose a review paper. I like papers where we made things a little more complicated than the routine in the field. Stories where we went up in complexity, away from one signal, one route, and started to ask questions about how things come together. I think that’s where science is going. We must make things more complicated. That’s the only way we can understand reality. That’s the kind of work I would like to see and to do more. You mentioned Mieke’s paper with Botrytis and Pseudomonas infection, and there is also another of Mieke’s on blue light and FR interaction. Another favorite is a paper with Scott Hayes as first author where we pinpointed the mechanism of interactions between light and salinity responses.

G: Last question: If you weren’t a scientist, what would you like to be?
R: That’s an interesting question! I always tell my students, if you don’t like science, don’t worry, you’re smart, you can find a job anywhere, and you will be happy. But they respond, “Ronald, what would you have done, then?” It would have to be something analytical. I must be forced to think. I enjoy complicated things that take me out of my comfort zone. Also, something where I can work with people, supervise, and mentor them, solve problems, and organize things. Maybe a job where I can do those, or a professional editor for a journal. You are still reading a lot, although you’re not discovering anything by yourself. I find it very difficult to picture myself outside the university. I became addicted to the freedom of the university system, where you can follow your own interests. Write a proposal about something you find interesting, get funding, and do science yourself. However, if I was forced to do something completely away from research, I would choose teaching. That’s what I enjoy the most outside of the intellectual challenge, to mentor my students, teach them, and talk with them. Maybe at the end, working with people is more important than the actual science.

G: That’s a beautiful thing to say, thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview!

[1] Dra. G. F. Milmanda does neither confirm nor deny, she may have completely freaked out after reading the first reviewer’s report of her paper.

Read more interviews of Plant Physiology editors here.