Luminaries: Philip N. Benfey

BY ARIF ASHRAF, ASPB Student Ambassador and Research Student, Cryobio Research Center, Iwate University, Japan (Originally published September 2016)

Professor, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

benfeyPhilip N. Benfey graduated from the University of Paris and received his  PhD in cell and developmental biology from Harvard University under the guidance of Dr. Philip Leder. He did postdoctoral research at Rockefeller University in the field of plant molecular biology with Dr. Nam-Hai Chua and was appointed assistant professor there in 1990. In 1991 he moved to New York University, where he became an associate professor in 1996 and full professor in 2001.  He was the founding director of the Center for Comparative Functional Genomics at New York University. In 2002 he was named professor and chair of the Biology Department at Duke University and in 2003 was named a distinguished professor.

Philip is the recipient of an NSF predoctoral fellowship and a Helen Hay Whitney postdoctoral fellowship. He was named a fellow of AAAS in 2004 and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2010. In 2011, Philip was named an investigator by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation under an initiative to support fundamental plant science research. He currently serves on the editorial boards of Science, Developmental Cell, and BMC Plant Biology.

Philip’s research focus is to understand how cells acquire their identities. To answer this question, he uses Arabidopsis thaliana root as a model system because of its simplicity, organization, and organized pattern. His lab uses a combination of genetics, molecular biology, and genomics to study the genes necessary for root development along with radial and longitudinal patterning. His lab discovered two genes, SHORT-ROOT and SCARECROW, important in radial patterning of roots. His longterm goal is to understand how cells are generated from a stem cell population and how they become patterned and integrated to form a functional organ.

Philip is also a pioneer in the cutting-edge technology of plant biology. His lab invented a device called RootArray, which allows scientists to grow 60 to 120 seedlings at a time. With this device, it also is possible to observe the response of plants and tagged genes. In 2007, he formed a start-up company, GrassRoots Biotechnology, based on this technology that uses systems biology approaches to develop new  crop traits for the bioenergy, food, and industrial markets.

How did you get interested in plant biology, and who influenced your scientific thinking early in your career?

I consider myself to be an “accidental” scientist; I originally wanted to be writer. I dropped out of college after a year and worked  for a logging company in Oregon and then for a ski area in Utah. At that point, I had to decide if I wanted to go back to college, and I opted instead to hitchhike around the world on sailboats. Unfortunately, I kept hitting hurricane season, so I didn’t do any long journeys on sailboats, which may be why it took me five years to get around the world.  I worked as a mechanic in the South Pacific, as a bricklayer’s laborer in Melbourne, and on the railroad for the Mt. Newman Mining Company in Western Australia, and then I traveled through Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. I worked as a gardener in Japan and began a novel. A year and nine months later, I was only halfway through the novel and ready to move on. So I took the Trans-Siberian railroad across the USSR, arriving in Moscow after eight days and seven nights, very hungry and in need of a shower. I left the USSR on a boat from Odessa and traveled through Europe, ending up in Paris. There, I worked as a carpenter on a barge that was being transformed into a community center. About the same time, I fell in love with a French woman who was attending law school in Paris. I thought it was a pretty good arrangement— she would be a wealthy lawyer who could support me as a struggling writer—until she made clear that her goal was to be an actress. At some point she said, “Not that I don’t have entire faith in your writing ability, but maybe a day job would be a good idea,” to which I replied, “But what would I do?” And she suggested biology. So I finished my undergraduate education at the University of Paris, then did my thesis at Harvard.

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

The primary influence over the past few years has been technology breakthroughs. These have included the drastically reduced cost of sequencing, the elucidation of genome editing systems, and the availability of enhanced imaging platforms.

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

In the field of plant developmental biology, we now have the ability to design and test synthetic circuits, which should help us understand how gene regulatory networks function.

What inspires you to continue in science?

Science is one of the few professions in which we consciously try to reduce obscurity. It is all about adding new knowledge, understanding something that was previously hidden. There is also the creative aspect—you can have an idea in the morning and act on it the same day.

If you had six months off, what would you do with your time?

I’d devote more time to running my new company, whose aim is to use sophisticated data analytics to improve crop breeding and human health.

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

I don’t think so. I had a great graduate adviser in Phil Leder at Harvard. He was very supportive as I learned humility in the face of science. He also had a life outside of the lab, which was a very good example.

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

I think there is real value in working outside of academia for some period of time. The easiest time to get out is between undergraduate and graduate school, but it could be at other times as well. This time away can provide valuable perspective, particularly during the frustrating periods of science. I also suggest that you should watch out when you feel too comfortable. Stretch yourself in terms of areas of interest, techniques, and approaches.

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

I look for people who are smart, have good hands, have quantitative skills, and are socially adept.

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

If you want to address the critical issues facing the world, most of them involve plant biology. Food and energy security, climate change, and social inequality can all be addressed through improved understanding of plants.

SOURCE: Ashraf, A. (2016) Luminaries: Philip N. Benfey. ASPB News 43(5): 15 – 16. Reprinted by permission from ASPB.