By Yadukrishnan Premachandran, PhD, Plant Physiology Assistant Features Editor
Rashmi Sasidharan is an Associate Professor at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. She obtained her PhD at the University of Calgary, Canada, for her research on the role of plant cell wall proteins in shade-induced phenotypic plasticity. Her current research focuses on flooding and hypoxia survival mechanisms in plants. Rashmi’s research combines biochemical, molecular, and genomic approaches in both wild and model plant species to identify tolerance mechanisms.
Yadukrishnan: You have had a long association with Plant Physiology as an author, including the recent paper that shows how ethylene activates hypoxia acclimation in plants. How has it been so far sitting on the other side of the table as an editor?
Rashmi: I started as an editor less than two years ago. I must say that it has been a wonderful experience. As editors, we get a lot of support, direction, and help from the journal team. For example, if I get to handle a paper that is not precisely in my area of expertise, I can very easily consult a colleague who has more expertise. If there is a dilemma related to an editorial decision, I can ask someone who has more experience in handling papers. I can even directly connect with the editor-in-chief and get an opinion, which is really nice. I feel a strong sense of community working for this journal and you’re really rooting for Team Plant Phys! So the experience as an editor has been very smooth. And I hope that as an editor, I also transmit that smooth and supportive experience to the authors.
Y: Tell us about your early days. How did you develop an interest in plants and how did you decide to do research in plant biology?
R: It was absolute serendipity that I got into plants. I did my bachelor’s in biochemistry at Delhi University and my master’s in biotechnology at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. Neither of the two courses had a lot to do with plants. When I was looking for PhD positions, I had absolutely zero knowledge of plants apart from what I learned at school. Obviously, I was not looking for a plant-related research topic, but in North America, you apply to the graduate school and not to individual labs. I had applied to a few programs, and one of the offers I received—which I ultimately accepted—was for a project on cell wall proteins. I remember talking to my future supervisor, confessing that I didn’t know anything about plants. He asked “You know what a plant is, right?” I said yes, and he said “That’s enough!” At that time, I was just interested in working on the biochemistry of these proteins and it didn’t matter where they originate from. Once I started, it evolved into a very plant-oriented project, and I gradually became interested in the concept of phenotypic plasticity that help plants adapt to changing environments. Of course, like any PhD project, my project also had its lows and highs. But in the end, the concept of plant adaptation to the environment that was new for me still remains a major part of my research program.
Y: How did you start working on your current focus area, plant responses to flooding and hypoxia stress?
R: During my PhD at the University of Calgary in Canada, I studied contrasting shade avoidance responses of two ecotypes of a species called Stellaria longipes. These two ecotypes belonged to two different habitats—one from the alpine and the other from the prairie. The alpine ecotype that grows in high altitudes with very limited vegetation around was non-responsive to shade conditions. Conversely, the prairie ecotype that grows amidst the competing vegetation in the grasslands possesses the ability to elongate its shoot in response to shade. So, you have different species or genotypes that do or do not try to grow and escape the stress based on the habitat in which they have evolved. You can see a very similar adaptation response in plants that escape from floods. When I was doing my PhD, I already had collaborations with Ronald Pierik here in Utrecht. After my PhD, I started a post-doc in Utrecht and one of the themes in the research program was flooding stress. I was enthused by the similarity in the underlying concept of shade avoidance and flood escape—the growth plasticity in response to environment. So I made the transition and just sort of stuck to that.
Y: During undergraduate days, did you have a clear idea that you wanted to pursue a career in research? What motivated you to move out of India to do a PhD?
R: Well, if I’m being very honest, the primary motivation then was to go abroad, live in an unfamiliar country, and just have that solo experience. Research was sort of an excuse to do that. I liked research and knew that I wanted to work on a PhD, but I didn’t have a very specific topic in mind when looking at PhD programs.
Y: Can you recall any incidences or people who strongly influenced you during your journey to become a leading scientist in the field?
R: Two people have had a major influence on my research. One is Rens Voesenek and the other is Julia Bailey-Serres. I have worked with both of them a lot, especially in the flooding research field. I know them well as collaborators and colleagues. They are highly accomplished scientists in the field, but the important thing is that they have been fantastic mentors. I could always ask them for advice, they always pushed me to do things that I wouldn’t have done otherwise, and provided me with opportunities that you expect from a mentor. I cannot think of any single incidence, but these two people have really played a big role in my journey so far.
Y: So, you have had amazing mentors. Now, while leading and mentoring a group of early career researchers yourself, what are your key mentorship mantras?
R: While mentoring someone, I always think of how I benefitted from my mentors as a mentee. At least from my own experience, there are a few things that work really well in a mentor-mentee relationship. Approachability is important. Mentees should not feel hesitant to tell you things. Second is honesty. I should be able to appreciate and criticize in good faith (and the other way around). And of course, trust and mutual respect. I think these elements are key for a good mentor-mentee relationship.
Y: Mentors in academia seem to want their academic lineage to follow the path they have taken. Today, there is a lot of discussion about alternative careers outside academia. Does this come into your career-related discussions with your mentees?
R: I always tell my team members that the next step you choose should not be something that you do because other people expect you to, but because you yourself want to. There is this perception in general that not staying in academia after doing a PhD and a postdoc is somehow a sign of failure or a step down. I think that is ridiculous. Ending up as a PI is just one of several options in a career. So, I always tell my trainees to explore all the options they like before they start thinking “What am I going to do next?” Talk to people who are in different fields and figure out what you think would be a good fit for you. And then I try my best to give them opportunities and help them out to move in that direction. It could be academia, industry, teaching, or any other field.
Y: Have these thoughts of switching to a non-academic career ever occurred to you during your PhD or post-doc period?
R: When I was doing my PhD, I was not very sure about continuing in academia. I was open to other options as well. Then when I got a tenure track position I thought, “Okay, let me see how it goes.” I think one great thing about a tenure track position is that while doing research, you have five years to figure out if this is really something you want. I found that I enjoyed it and eventually, I got tenure! But, for sure, I was not one of those people who knew exactly what my career path would be.
Y: I am just curious—if you had not become a scientist, what would have been your career of choice?
R: When I was in high school, and very likely influenced by TV and movies, I wanted to be a forensic scientist. But back then, there weren’t many opportunities in India to pursue that, so it didn’t work out for me. Maybe, if I was in a country where, you know, there were better chances, I would have definitely gone down that path.
Y: That’s interesting! Anyway, you ended up working toward unveiling hidden truths, albeit in plants. Now, let us once again go back to publishing. You have shared your experience as an editor. As a lead author who puts the paper together, what are your general principles of publishing?
R: One thing that is quite standard and required at our university and by our funding agencies is that the publication should be open access. And they support us to pay the open access fee. If your research is funded by the Dutch Science Foundation, then you are obliged to make your work open access. Now we also make sure that we submit our papers in a pre-print repository before it goes out for review somewhere. One thing I try to do is to get a story published while the lead author is still around, because that’s also essential for those people. But, if you clearly know that it is a really cool story, and a few final experiments would make it really complete, then the strategy is to get someone else in the team to finish it up even if the primary author leaves the lab. Depending on the nature of the story, we decide which journal it is best suited for. And I think most of the time one has a pretty good idea of what journal would be the best home for a certain paper.
Y: There might have been many instances where interesting ideas and projects ended up reaching nowhere. How do you deal with these dead ends and negative results?
R: Dead ends are very common in any field of research, but I strongly feel that you should try to publish all data even if your story does not have a definite conclusion or does not make a big revelation. I think that these data can still be useful to the community. We often ignore negative results or some descriptive data sets, thinking that nobody is going to be interested in them, but I still think it can be valuable for someone somewhere. So, I try to always get everything out there. There are so many other publishing avenues these days; you can put it out somewhere in the public domain. Maybe you can save the time and resources of people who would go on to repeat the same thing out of mere curiosity. So, I always think it can be useful to someone at some point.
Y: You have been actively collaborating with many scientists around the world. How do you choose these collaborations?
R: It can happen in many ways. Of course, most commonly when we need to answer a particular part of our research question for which we don’t have in-house expertise, we ask who could do that and try to collaborate. But, I’m also very opportunistic when it comes to funding opportunities. Sometimes, research calls or grants have specific requirements—like joint proposals involving groups from two countries. Those are nice because I have had projects that I never intended to work on otherwise, but started as I came into contact with new collaborators. And then, of course, there are people you have worked with and you enjoy working with them so much that you just invent news ways to collaborate.
Y: You have collaborative projects with organizations like the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), where the focus is on more applied-level research. What was the starting point of that idea?
R: I am sure all scientists like me who work on fundamental questions in plant biology also aspire to make a difference through the translation of our findings. My work has been mostly in Arabidopsis, and not really in crop plants. The IRRI project originated when I had the chance to visit IRRI. As you rightly mentioned, IRRI does very much application-oriented research, and all the science happening there is really for the benefit of the farmers. I was really impressed and inspired by that environment. I knew some IRRI colleagues in the flooding field. Our chats and conversations gradually progressed into a project idea. In the end, it is always nice to see how what you find through your fundamental research becomes useful in some way in the real world, because that is the ultimate goal, right? So, yes, I also strive for that, but I must say, the primary nature of my research remains very fundamental.
Y: Apart from the model plants, do you work on other plants that might be interesting in the context of flooding tolerance?
R: Yes, we do. We work a lot with Arabidopsis, but we also do work with non-model species. These are wetland plants or flood-tolerant plants that are of interest to us because they thrive in wet environments and it’s very attractive to know what they are doing differently. However, since the genetic manipulation in these species is not very straightforward, the work progresses at a slower pace.
Y: In your opinion what are the big questions that would define the direction of your field in the coming years?
R: In the flooding and hypoxia field, I feel it has been quite an exciting five to 10 years that have passed by. We have had really groundbreaking discoveries, especially in the field of oxygen sensing, which are relevant for flooding responses as well. I think the next major challenge or frontier will be to really understand the dynamics of the stress responses. This is not just for flooding, but for all abiotic stresses in general. We know a lot about how potentially plants sense and respond to stresses. But most of this knowledge has been coming from studies conducted in very static systems. I think the challenge will be to understand the temporal and spatial dynamics in the perception of stress signals and triggering of adaptive responses. Plants grow in dynamic environments and, unlike static systems, we must expect a lot of signaling interactions. How do these interactions define various stress responses? We talk about tolerant and sensitive plants. Where do these variations actually arise from? Is it in the perception or in the response or both? We don’t quite know that much. So, I think these would be the next big challenges. Of course, there is progress in that direction, but we are not there yet.
Y: I remember reading your article in Trends in Plant Science in which you highlighted the importance of considering the effects of developmental stage of the plant while studying stress responses.
R: Definitely. That is another relevant aspect—how stress resilience is influenced by developmental stages. We were talking about translation of findings and that is one of the things that perhaps becomes a barrier for going from lab to field. We typically use experimental systems that work well in terms of ease of visualizing something or measuring something. However, those results often don’t translate to the field because plants might face stress conditions at a completely different developmental stage there. These aspects are important to determine how much of what we see in our experiments hold across time and space and developmental stages.
Y: Finally, do you have any advice to give for early career researchers who are reading this?
R: Twitter or other social media spaces offer ample advice on anything one can think of. I sometimes think that it would have been so nice if I had access to all this counsel when I was a newbie PhD candidate or postdoc. But maybe it would have been an overload of opinions, I don’t know. Maybe it was good that I was just this naive young scientist who had no clue about the real world. What I believe is that you know your situation the best and what would or would not work for you. As I mentioned before, you should decide the next step based on what you want to do, and not because someone else expects you to go down a certain road. If you do choose to go down a certain path because you think that’s what you are expected to do, maybe you will be successful, but you probably won’t be happy in the long-term and you won’t be able to sustain it for long.
Read more interviews of Plant Physiology editors here.
About the author
Yadukrishnan Premachandran is a post-doctoral fellow with Prof. Utpal Nath at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India. He obtained his PhD from IISER Bhopal, India under the supervision of Dr. Sourav Datta, for which he studied the influence of light on abscisic acid-mediated inhibition of early seedling development. Currently, he is studying how plants coordinate developmental and environmental signals to finetune flavonoid biosynthesis. He is an assistant features editor of Plant Physiology for the term 2022-2023.