Luminaries: Stefan Hortensteiner

BY PRATEEK TRIPATHI, ASPB Student Ambassador, South Dakota State University (Originally published March 2013)

Professor, University of Zurich, Switzerland

stefanPT: What got you interested in plant biology in general, and what influences directed you to your specific area of research?

SH: Professor Enrico Martinoia (University of Zurich, Switzerland), a great mentor and scientist, influenced both my general interest in plant biology and the direction of specific research on chlorophyll breakdown.

PT: Who influenced your scientific thinking early in your career, and how?

SH: Again, Enrico and a few other professors, such as Nick Amrhein (ETH Zurich), Philippe Matile (University of   Zurich), and Howard Thomas (Aberystwyth University, Wales) with whom I worked, were decisive for me in several ways. The most important thing I learned was that success cannot always be planned, but often is simple coincidence and luck. Of course, it requires being critical and careful and open-eyed, but also streamlined.

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

SH: If by “good” you mean the most successful for getting a good job in the future, you should do the standard program: PhD and postdocs in the most renowned labs you can think of, preferably going abroad to demonstrate migration ability and internationality, as well as publishing extensively. But, as already mentioned, success is not always planned, so also take into consideration your gut feeling when choosing topic or group.

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

SH: I would change nothing, because I had the luck to always being surrounded by motivating colleagues and inspiring bosses.

PT: What journals do you regularly follow and why?

SH: I follow most plant journals and important multidisciplinary journals, such as Nature, Science,PNAS, and JBC, and receive their etocs by e-mail. I do this, of course, to be up-to-date within my direct area of research, but also to see what else is going on in plant research. An important tool for me is the Cited Reference Search tool of the Web of Science,which allows me to screen papers that cite my own work.

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

SH: I am generally interested in chloroplast metabolism; therefore, most new information regarding chloroplast function is of interest to me. Chloroplast proteomic studies of different groups that give important insights into the protein content of chloroplasts are important for my research. Likewise, platforms like Genevestigator or the resources at TAIR influence my work because of the ability to retrieve information on genes/proteins that could be interesting for my own research.

PT: What do you think is the next big thing in plant biology, and why?

SH: That is difficult to say. To be honest, I don’t dare make any predictions.

PT: What do you think will be the next big thing in your specific area of study, and why?

SH: The biochemistry of chlorophyll breakdown in leaves is largely solved. Interesting fields to investigate are fruit ripening or regulatory aspects of the pathway, but as the future is not predictable, I again don’t dare predict any “next big thing.”

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

SH: The five qualities I look for are technical skills, education, social abilities, language skills, and independence of working.

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

SH: Be open-minded and choose a topic that you find most interesting. Read the Annual Reviews in Plant Biology chapters of distinguished plant biologists (the first chapter in each volume) that describe their scientific life and career. This is highly inspiring.

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

SH: Try to get an in-depth knowledge of plant metabolism and development. Bioinformatics and technical skills are important.

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

SH: Curiosity!

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

SH: Be excited yourself about what you teach to students, but don’t consider your own research area the most important one.

PT: How do you see the future of basic plant science as part of a policy-making body?

SH: This is a wide field! I think policy issues in relation to plant science are very important in different areas, such as green biotechnology, invasive plants, or biofuel. Understanding plant related policy work will become more and more important, and education as a plant biologist should include courses going into this direction.

SOURCE: Tripathi, P. (2013) Luminaries: Stefan Hortensteiner. ASPB News 40(2): 9 – 10. Reprinted by permission from ASPB.