Luminaries: Julian Schroeder

BY PRATEEK TRIPATHI, ASPB Student Ambassador, Postdoc Fellow, University of Southern California (Originally published November 2013)

Professor, University of California, San Diego

schroderWhat inspired your interest in plant biology in general, and what influences directed you to your specific area of research?

As an undergrad in physics in Göttingen, Germany, a friend and I had a vegetable garden. We used beer in small saucers to ward off snails—not an uncommon approach. I was fascinated by plants. But my start included a dose of serendipity while I was a graduate student at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry. A postdoc in our lab, Julio Fernandez (now at Columbia University), and I would look out at the forest from the lab and talk about how cool it would be to analyze plant cells with the new patch clamp techniques that my thesis adviser, Erwin Neher, had developed with Bert Sakmann. We talked to Erwin, and he supported the idea. Then I talked to David Robinson in the Plant Physiology Institute of the university, who directed us to Klaus Raschke. We started a collaboration with Klaus’s graduate student, Rainer Hedrich, who was analyzing metabolic mechanisms in protoplasts. The research got off to a great start. At my first talk at a conference, a speaker in the same session stated, “Land plants don’t have ion channels.” I got hooked. Building hypotheses about how plant membrane channels enabled plant physiological responses and testing these hypotheses, with a degree of counterarguments of colleagues, was an exploration of uncharted territory that had many twists and turns and was simply awesome.

Who influenced your scientific thinking early in your career?

My MS and PhD mentor, Erwin Neher. One example: From the very start when I joined his lab, he told me that even though he was offering me the opportunity to do grad research with him, he was concerned that as a young physics student I might ask questions that were interesting in terms of physics but that biologists might not care terribly about. Erwin is also a physicist, so I took that advice to heart and read a lot, and it was clear that biology was much more complex than physics. I tried to keep the focus on biological questions that were fascinating while using physics approaches. There were and are many cool physics questions along the way. I passed on many of them—but I still like to keep an eye on them and am excited when someone picks them up, and I try to encourage young folks who do.

What do you think are good career moves for young scientists?

If you love what you’re doing, you are doing the right thing. Beyond that, there are key questions to be solved in all disciplines. Pick your questions carefully and then go after them and keep learning every day.

If you were able to repeat your years as a graduate student or early years as a postgraduate student, would you do anything differently?

No. I loved it. I was very lucky that both my grad and postdoc advisers gave me pretty much complete freedom of choice in research. This is not really guaranteed in today’s funding climate, so pick your adviser based on your interests. The best way to learn is from your own ideas and failures.

What scientific discoveries over the past couple of years have influenced your research directions?

In science, you stand on the shoulders of giants who have come before you and created a vast ocean of knowledge. I don’t know that there is one discovery, but the great diversity of that integrated ocean of knowledge and the many powerful tools available today will influence your research. That ocean is very cool, and you want to expand it significantly. I think research might be more driven by the questions you that all these great new technologies will allow you to see them in a new light.

What do you think is the next big thing in plant biology?

There are many big things for sure. To name a few, climate change–linked plant stress resistance, sustainable global food production, helping solve the renewable energy problem, new avenues in quantitative genetics, understanding hybrid vigor, and evolution.

What do you think will be the next big thing in your specific area of study?

We are interested in how plants respond to abiotic stress. Much fundamental knowledge and understanding of mechanisms is needed and will need to keep coming. At the same time, a first generation of commercial products is emanating from this research. Fundamental research is needed to lay the groundwork for the future generations of these products. I like to say, “Imagine if research had stopped at the transistor and if Sony had stopped at the transistor radio.” We might be somewhere close to that early stage.

As an employer, what are the key qualities you look for in a potential team member?

I look for enthusiasm, ethics, courage, intelligence, team spirit, and the ability to finish what you have started if it’s interesting.

What advice would you give to a student interested in plant biology today?

This is perhaps the best time ever to enter plant biology. The future of our well-being and the planet’s well-being depends on you—the next generation of plant biologists. Pick the question you will work on with thought, and be sure it inspires you.

What experience or training do you think is most important to have?

We need all kinds of training and backgrounds. It’s a clear advantage presently for biologists to be able to work with, generate, and/or navigate “big data” and use related systems biological approaches, but you need to have big questions as targets, too.

What is the single most important factor for a successful career in plant biology?

That would be the question you decide to focus on. Fortunately, there are a huge number of exhilarating questions, but taking time to consider and pick the right question at the right time is still key. Serendipity and keeping an open mind are important as well.

What advice would you give to educators to encourage young people to explore science and plant biology?

This is the most exciting time ever to research biological questions and plant biology. Incredibly powerful tools are at our fingertips. As I said, plant biologists will be key to saving the planet and creating a more sustainable future. There is also quite a responsibility that goes with that, though the path should be fun, too. These days good advice is also needed for funding, which is a real challenge.

How do you look at the future of basic plant science as a part of policy-making body?

Support for science and plant biology is, and should be, a nonpartisan issue. Strong science fuels innovation, jobs, competitiveness, and global sustainability. It is hard and important work to keep conveying this message. Also listen to and respect those you are conveying the message to. Not all scientists may agree with me on this, but I believe much of the population is enthusiastic about science and technology, and if you can explain what you are doing, people can share in your enthusiasm and be very supportive and outright excited themselves. Also, new solutions to problems can and will influence policy making, and plant biology can and will have a huge impact on future policy in this respect.

Lastly, do you have any hobbies?

I love ocean kayaking. I play harmonica in a blues band. I found that music is a good creative outlet for many scientists, and it is something I started as a grad student. I like trying to converse in foreign languages. I make a lot of mistakes, for sure. I had to learn German when my family moved there and became interested in languages. I also like bicycling a lot and am in a French bicycling group.

SOURCE: Tripathi, P. (2013) Luminaries: Julian Schroeder. ASPB News 40(6): 19 – 20. Reprinted by permission from ASPB.