Informational Interview by Hillary Fischer, ASPB Conviron Scholar 2020
I recently had the pleasure to sit down with Dr. Christine Foyer, a professor at the University of Leeds in the Centre for Plant Science were her research lab focuses on the impact of stress on the growth and development of the plant, specifically in regard to cellular reductive/oxidative homeostasis and signalling. We discussed various topics including the path she took in research, advice for young career professionals, and her view on the current gender climate of science.
I first started the interview by discussing her path into research. She said she had not intended to even study plants in the beginning. Her interests were in animals where she wanted to study embryology, but upon realizing the number of embryos she would have to kill she found an alternative route with plant science. Her major doctoral advisor, Dr. Barry Halliwell, had her begin a project trying to extract compounds from banana fruit. She described the work as being awful because banana fruit, especially back then, was hard to work with and was gooey. After a year of exhaustive work with minimal results, Dr. Halliwell switched her to working on scavenging enzymes in the plant and within two years her PhD work was complete. She is now well known for her work in the redox status of the plant and its role in plant response to abiotic and biotic stress. She even a principal discoverer of the Foyer-Halliwell-Asada pathway for cellular processing of hydrogen peroxide.
I then asked her if there were any surprises in either her research or professional career. While she struggled to think of anything of real surprise, she did have quite a bit of wisdom to share on research,
Often the surprise you find is in context. No matter what you see as an observation in the laboratory it might be very difficult to translate that into the field and into real world situations. One of the best things is to not have a fixed philosophy. Obviously, you to visual things in your mind, but you shouldn’t be rigid in your thinking because often the way you think about things in the first place is too simple. Have flexibility in your thinking.
And for the professional career, she also stressed the importance of flexibility.
I’ve never stayed in one place for a very long time and there are several reasons for that. I think it is very hard to get a promotion in one place. I think it is very hard as a women to really get promotions in one place. I’ve always thought that moving from one job to get a better job is the way to go. And the longer you stay in a place the more they take you for granted. So you get there 10 years and you end up with all the teaching and administration duties. I’ve always moved from one job to another. It refreshes you as well. And there is a lot about getting stale that you don’t even realize when you are at one place. Moving to a new environment and you get around new research and new techniques is really stimulating. Having that flexibility of movement really broadens your environment.
Dr. Foyer contributed her flexibility in her research career as one of the ways she moved into studying aphids as a plant stress. As she said, she had always loved animals and wanted to work with them to begin with. Throughout her career she kept in contact with her animal colleagues which allowed her to move into the system of plant-aphid interactions. She said it started with a simple idea really, “that higher order animals like birds and some insects can’t make vitamin C and they require it in their diet”. She has now gone on to show the importance of redox scavenging system, particularly involving vitamin C, for regulating aphid defense in the plant. As a plant-insect interactions person with a focus on reactive oxygen species for aphid resistance, I am quite pleased she chose this research avenue as well.
And finally, in closing for the interview, I brought up an issue that is relevant to the both of us and currently a heavily discussed topic. I asked, “from your point of view, are women becoming more equal in science?”
I do. But it’s very county specific. It’s really country and culture specific. It is times when you come to places like that you think women are doing just fine. Still there are discrepancies at higher levels and that can be a little disheartening at times because it is good to see that you have gender balance across the board. But you know it is an aspiration and a lot of countries moving in the right direction and then you have others that don’t really go anywhere at all. There are some really renowned institutions in Europe that don’t have any women in higher echelons and that is usually because the competition is fierce, and they make no allowances for women with children. Or, they make some, but not enough. When you’ve got a very competitive environment where they only reward success it can be difficult for young women to rise up in the ranks. You need a lot of staying power. And there are some cultures who really aren’t going to change. But you have to lead by example. And you have to look at places that are doing really well and realize that the companies that are doing well are those that are balanced across the board. But I don’t despair.
Overall, the interview taught me to be flexible and to keep working towards my goals with determination.