Working towards your goals one step at a time: An interview with Plant Physiology monitoring editor Alistair McCormick

By Jiawen Chen, PhD, Plant Physiology Assistant Features Editor

Alistair McCormick is a Professor in Plant Engineering Biology at the University of Edinburgh (UK). He obtained his PhD at the University of KwaZulu Natal (South Africa), where he worked on sink regulation of photosynthesis in sugarcane, with Derek Watt and Michael Cramer. After postdocs in Oxford, Cambridge and the John Innes Centre (UK), he became a PI at the University of Edinburgh as a Chancellor’s Fellow in 2013 and was promoted to Professor in 2023. His lab researches photosynthesis in plants, algae and cyanobacteria using a synthetic/engineering biology approach, with key focuses on improving photosynthetic efficiencies in C3 plants, and enhancing the carbon sequestration potential and production of high value compounds in micro-algae.


How did you first become interested in plant science and in becoming a scientist?

When I first started my BSc, I wanted to do science and to be a medic. My undergraduate degree back in Durban, South Africa (University of KwaZulu Natal) was a mixture of ecology and cell biology or molecular biology. It was when I started working on sugarcane in my master’s degree (Plant Biotechnology, University of Stellenbosch) and continued this in my PhD (University of KwaZulu Natal), that I started developing this passion for plant science.

So how did you become involved in the sugarcane project when at first you weren’t really looking at plant science?

In the fourth and final year of my honours degree I successfully applied for an internship at the South African Sugarcane Research Institute (SASRI), which is part of SASA, the South African Sugar Association. SASRI has a good lab, they have tissue culture facilities and link up with breeders, but do blue skies research as well. I was in a win-win situation working at an institute that did both applied and fundamental research. I did my MSc and PhD at SASRI, and focused on understanding the source-sink relationship in sugarcane. This was really fun, because we got to start playing with new molecular tools like microarrays and mixed that up with proper physiology measurements in plants. It was great as the facilities were so good. It’s probably still one of the better equipped research labs that I’ve worked in, and I think that comes down to industry support and the talented group of scientists there.

As that project was looking at photosynthesis, is that how you came on to researching carbon concentrating mechanisms (CCMs)?

Sugarcane is C4 of course, so I got involved in studying the C4 concentrating mechanism (CCM) during my MSc and PhD, but it was only when I got to the UK for my second and third postdocs that I discovered pyrenoids. I started working with algae and cyanobacteria in my second postdoc in Chris Howe’s lab in Cambridge, and focused on pyrenoids and carboxysomes in my third postdoc with Alison Smith at the John Innes Centre (JIC). This was part of a large collaborative project funded by BBSRC-NSF, to introduce a pyrenoid-based CCM into plants to enhance photosynthesis. This has become the Combining Algal and Plant Photosynthesis (CAPP) Consortium, which has been going since 2010. In 2013, I applied for a Chancellor’s Fellowship at Edinburgh, and Alison Smith basically handed over the reins to me for the pyrenoid work, which was really great. The core group of CAPP currently consists of Luke Mackinder at York, and Martin Jonikas and Ned Wingreen at Princeton.

How do you manage a large consortium like that, with people approaching a similar goal from different perspectives and different labs?

I think it has worked well because of communication between the core group members. For many years now we have been meeting up every three months for an online call, and usually one or two members of the labs present their recent findings. It’s not competitive, but when you see another lab has discovered something new it’s really exciting. This helps to motivate future work and to focus going forward in a particular way. You start rethinking about challenges you might be having and, as such, everyone helps each other. For us, we’ve found three months is usually a good period in which to make progress and put together new data that you can share. We’ve had many successes I think, partly from just keeping those meetings going and keeping all the members of the CAPP groups informed.

Did you always want to be a PI?

Not at all, really. I’ve always worked in terms of my next goal. When I was nearing the end of my PhD, I was very focused on what I wanted to do next, and I wanted to do a postdoc. I wasn’t thinking about being a PI at that point. Then through my first two postdoc projects, I suppose I subconsciously felt that it was the trajectory of where I was going, but I wasn’t thinking about it seriously. I think many postdocs might feel this way. For example, they may feel they don’t have enough in terms of publications or experience. Then I think literally in the first month that I joined Alison Smith’s group at the JIC, she said, “What are you doing next?” Being put on the spot, I said, “I suppose I’d like to be a PI,” and she said, “Well you’d better start applying for fellowships.” She was a really good mentor, and that helped to put me on the PI path. Then it basically came down to putting applications together and getting used to that process of applying and going up to the next level, which I think, like anything, once you get used to the details it’s not that scary, and you just have to try your best.

Other than Alison’s great mentorship, who had a big influence on your career and how does that influence your own ways of mentorship?

During my PhD I had two excellent supervisors, Derek Watt and Mike Cramer. Mike Cramer is at the University of Cape Town and Derek works for SASA. They both taught me molecular and physiology skills, and how to write. The evolution from being an undergraduate to writing at a PhD level is a big step. For my first postdoc, Nick Kruger was fantastic in terms of getting me involved in Arabidopsis and just generally getting me up to speed with the UK research community. Chris Howe in Cambridge then gave me a lot of freedom to explore different research avenues, which helped develop my confidence and independence. We were trying to build photovoltaic cells, using cyanobacteria and algae to generate electricity, which was really fun, interdisciplinary collaborative research, and good for outreach activities. I was fortunate to be involved in several good publications there, too. I think each of them taught me different things and what I do now is a conglomeration of it all. You watch your supervisors, and you learn what they do best.

Have you found doing research in the UK quite different from South Africa, and how did you find that transition?

Some of the labs in South Africa are really top notch. In general, though, the level of funding available is much lower than you have in the UK. In South Africa there’s a lot of applied research, and ecology and phylogenetic characterization research. Molecular biology is rarer compared to the UK, as it’s more expensive to do. I think moving to the UK and seeing the scope of the research community was something that took a bit of getting used to, as well as getting to understand the funding landscape. I don’t currently have plans to move back to South Africa, but in terms of collaborating with researchers in South Africa, I do look for opportunities to link up with local labs.

Do you have any advice for early career researchers (ECRs) for their general career development?

I think keeping focused on the details of your immediate next goal is a good thing to do, and so far it’s worked well for me. So, as a PhD student, it might be the key experiments you need to do to publish a specific research chapter as a good paper. This helps when you become a postdoc, where you’ll be focused on getting your suite of papers together or your next big publication and filling up your CV. As you progress in your career to being a PI, the details of your goals naturally become more long-term and complex, for instance the milestones you want to achieve in a three-year project. But overall, I think if you get into a habit of finding and paying attention to the important details upfront, it makes things easier overall.


What kinds of different projects is your lab working on? How did you get started on all of them and how are all of these different paths developing?

We work with plants, algae, and cyanobacteria and we’ve got projects in each of these areas. For plant work, we collaborate with the CAPP group to introduce the pyrenoid into plants. With algae, we’re part of an sLoLa consortium with Saul Purton (UCL), Alison Smith (Cambridge), and Attila Molnar (Edinburgh) working on redesigning the algal plastid genome. With cyanobacteria, we’ve been building engineering toolkits for a while now, and have collaborated with several companies in the UK. We’ve worked with ScotBio on the blue pigment protein phycocyanin. We’re currently working with a company in Oxford called CyanoCapture to engineer a fast-growing cyanobacterial strain for enhance CO2 capture. The strain is really great to work with – with most model species you often wait up to 10 days to get colonies, but now we get colonies in 2-3 days. The cycle of “design, build, test, learn” is much accelerated.

Did the toolkit generation start from a necessity because you were working on a project?

Because I had such good fun with cyanobacteria when I was working in Chris’s lab, I decided I’d like to start a branch of cyanobacterial work in my lab. So, I teamed up with Chris and ScotBio, and we initially got a small proof of concept grant from PHYCONET (the predecessor of AlgaeUK) and built a MoClo kit, CyanoGate, which no one had done for cyanobacteria yet. During that time we recruited several excellent PhD and MSc students, who helped to further develop the kit and use it for various applications, for example, expressing a more thermotolerant variant of phycocyanin. We’ve also collaborated with David Lea-Smith at the University of East Anglia to start building a whole genome knockout library for model species Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 ( Most recently we’ve been working with this fast-growing strain, Synechocystis sp. PCC 11901. I feel I’ve been very fortunate as this branch of my lab has grown from strength to strength.

When do you think there might be a crop plant with a CO2-concentrating mechanism?

Our ambitious short-term goal is to get our first proof of concept pyrenoid-based CCM in Arabidopsis up and running in the next two years. In addition, we have two PhD students in the lab working on engineering various algal CCM components into tobacco and rice, respectively. As such, we’re testing out different species to decide on the specific crop that we want to commit to. If we get our proof of concept working, I would hope we can transfer this into a crop in the following five years.

What do you think is the most exciting development in plant biology in recent years?

Based on personal experience, I feel the recent improvements in microscopy tools have been game changing. We’ve been very fortunate to work with Ben Engel on cryo-electron tomography and with David Seung and Sam Zeeman on serial block-face electron microscopy approaches. These technologies are just so exciting in terms of being able to see, from a 3D perspective, the impact of heterologous proteins on plant chloroplast architecture. In the future, I hope we’ll be able to better automate these approaches, so we can quickly visualise and segment proteins and sub-cellular structures, and that such tools will become more abundantly available to the wider plant research community.


How much time do you spend on average in your role as editor, and how do you balance this with all your other tasks?

I usually spend about one or two hours a week on it. Once you get used to the process, it’s usually quite enjoyable and not that arduous to be an editor. Sometimes there are challenging situations, for example, when reviewers are late or disagree, and that can take a little bit of extra time to work through. For Plant Physiology, we can set up consultation sessions online with reviewers or other editors. This is really useful, as you can have relatively quick discussions on issues, and make sure everyone is in agreement and that your final decision is supported. It’s quite a fun and fulfilling process.

Do you choose postdocs and students as reviewers?

Not typically, but sometimes if the first authors of highly relevant papers are postdocs, and I would invite them. I would normally go for the last author unless I knew the postdoc, but often what happens is the last author might be busy and they recommend a postdoc or even a PhD student to review, in which case, I would send an invitation. I’ve found that postdocs and PhD students often do a solid job at reviewing because they are very thorough. Overall, I think getting ECRs involved in the review process is really good. At Plant Physiology, reviewers are given a star rating depending on how well or how timely their reviews are. So, if an ECR gets a high rating, they will likely get invited again in the future.

Do you have any thoughts on the way scientific publishing has developed, is evolving and where it may go?

One area of concern is the peer review process. I think the increasing number of publications is overburdening research communities and putting the peer review process under massive stress.  Monetizing peer review might help, but I’m not sure if there’s an appetite for this from publishers. You could see a future where only certain journals continue with traditional peer review, while others move to a preprint-like scenario, like bioRxiv, where a paper’s quality and impact is measured only by a crowd-sourcing approach; for example, a metric could be how often the paper is read and cited. This could be a good way forward, you could build a standardized base platform for robust data that doesn’t need to go through the typical peer review process. For example, a PhD chapter that doesn’t have sufficiently novel data for a high-impact publication, but nonetheless contains good science could be published on this kind of platform and just go through editorial review. Perhaps changes like this could support the ongoing need to publish work and help ease the pressure on traditional peer review.

Read more interviews of Plant Physiology editors here.

About the author

Jiawen Chen is a postdoctoral researcher at the KU Leuven (Belgium), in the lab of Bram van de Poel. She is interested in plant metabolism and is currently studying the ethylene biosynthesis pathway in Marchantia polymorpha. She obtained her PhD from the John Innes Centre in Norwich (UK) with David Seung, where she worked on the biochemistry of starch granule initiation in Arabidopsis and wheat. She is an Assistant Features Editor for Plant Physiology for the term 2023-2024.