Plant Science Course

Visitor of the Week: Sonia Chin

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Meet Sonia Chin of Friends’ Central School. After earning her PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 2016, Sonia joined the independent and co-educational Quaker day school as an Upper School Science Teacher and just completed her first year teaching Biology I Advanced and Biology II Advanced Genetics Super Lab. She is on campus for the Frontiers & Techniques in Plant Science course where she is gathering material for a plant biology course she would like to begin offering her high school students.

Before becoming a teacher, what were your research interests? What were you working on?
Before becoming a teacher, I was interested in sensory neuroscience - particularly how animals sense the environment and what their brains do to generate an appropriate behavioral response. My graduate work in Chris Potter’s lab involved studying how the female fly brain processes olfactory stimuli to decide where to lay eggs, an important choice that impacts the survival of her offspring. I completed my PhD in October 2016 from Johns Hopkins University Department of Neuroscience; and I’m excited to say that on July 4th (during this course) my thesis work identifying a brain region specifically geared towards recognizing and avoiding smells associated with bacterial infection and larval parasites was accepted for publication!

As a teacher, what are your science interests and goals for your students?
I aim to introduce my students to how wonderfully weird biology can be and challenge them to use what they know to form novel and interesting ways to ask questions and problem solve. By incorporating practices rooted in the training of a scientist – such as the scientific method, frequently posing open-ended questions, and troubleshooting inquiry-based labs – I hope to help my students achieve these goals and make biology relevant and interesting. Most importantly, I hope that the skills they work so hard to hone in my class transfer to the other domains of their lives to logically evaluate information they encounter out in the world.

How did you know you wanted to become a teacher (as opposed to continuing to work in the lab)? What factor(s) helped/led you to make the career decision?
Typical of any young scientist’s developmental progress, I had an existential crisis at the beginning of my third year of graduate school. This, along with the added stress of a health scare, motivated me to take off a couple of months from graduate school to work on my mental and physical health. During that time, I found summer employment at a nonprofit called the Biotechnical Institute of Maryland teaching Baltimore City high schoolers interested in biomedical sciences to work in the lab. It was there that I discovered a love for teaching high schoolers.

While I love the life of the mind that professional scientists live, upon graduation, I thought hard about what to do next and determined that there are plenty of newly-minted PhDs who will become great scientists and, perhaps, relatively fewer PhDs who joyfully see teaching high school biology as a viable, first choice career path. Having just completed my first year of teaching, I love it. Teaching high school is equally dynamic to doing science day-to-day, puts me in contact with endlessly interesting people, and has been incredibly rewarding.

How did your scientific journey begin? 
I think I have a classic story here: During senior year of high school, I remember looking at a neuron slide and thinking how cool it was that I could see cells and measure things to understand how they work. More importantly, my high school biology teacher, Karen Shepherd, encouraged us to read popular science books, and a book called Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Guide to All Creation by Olivia Judson really captured my imagination about evolutionary biology and the weird behaviors in the animal world. 

Was there something specific about the Frontiers & Techniques in Plant Science course that drew you to apply?
I constantly think about what I can offer to my students not only through the curriculum but also from my experiences as a scientist. Presently, I teach a fall semester course, Genetics SuperLab which covers epigenetics and optogenetics, followed by an independent project by the students. I would like to expand my curriculum by offering a more molecular biology and experiments-based plant biology course in the spring (which will complement the botany course my colleague teaches in the fall).

Also, since earning with my PhD in October 2016, I miss working with my hands and doing science so I thought a CSHL course would be an amazing opportunity to hang out with scientists and bring new skills back to my school.

What and/or how will you apply what you've learned from the course to your work? 
I already plan to replace one of my labs with a technique I learned in the Plants course. When a pollen grain contacts the stigma of a flower with female anatomy, the single-celled grain of pollen extends a tube (up to one meter long in corn!) to deliver two sperm cells inside the ovary. One of the two sperm ultimately fuses with an egg cell to form an embryonic plant while the other fuses with a large cell, called the central cell, which eventually grows into endosperm, the part of a seed that provides nutrition for the new plant. In foods like beans and corn, endosperm is where we gain the most nutrition from eating. I like this system because it is dynamic and I think my students would really enjoy learning about some of the cell biology and signaling involved in double fertilization in plants. And to watch the process in real time would (literally and figuratively) help the lesson come alive for them. 

I will also probably use some of the bioinformatics tools covered in the course to talk about gene expression and how understanding evolution and phylogenetic trees can inform hypotheses about biological phenomena.

What is your key takeaway from the course?
Plants have evolved to address evolutionary pressures that are very different than animals, and their biology is both similar and different to animal biology in some pretty profound ways. Because of some major differences from animal biology, it has been interesting - to me - to see how differently plant biologists use inferences derived from the similarities in genetic sequences across species to support their hypotheses and conclusions. 

How many CSHL courses have you attended? Have you participated in a CSHL meeting? 
This is my first course at CSHL, and I would never have predicted that I would be taking this course as a high school teacher. Also, I attended the Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting in 2011 and 2015

If someone curious in attending this course asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
Frontiers & Techniques in Plant Biology is an excellent course for someone who wants to quickly get up to speed on plant science. I have really enjoyed hearing talks and learning from scientists  in their areas of expertise; it feels a bit like being at a really long conference because it includes such a diversity of topics and types of techniques. Learning to use computational tools and programming would have been tremendously useful at the beginning of my PhD which leaned more towards animal behavior and genetics. I am happy to see my fellow students, who are mostly early-year graduate students, getting such a well-rounded training covering multiple levels of research.  
What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
How welcoming the students, instructors, and scientists have been to answering my (probably) naive questions!

Sonia received funding support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and from an endowment created by an alumnus dedicated and passionate about science education at Friends' Central School. On behalf of Sonia, thank you to NSF and to the alumnus for supporting and enabling our young scientists to attend a CSHL course where they expand their skills, knowledge, and network.

Also, thank you to Sonia for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.

A Word From: David Jackson, Todd Mockler & Jane Parker

L to R: Ken Zaret, Fiona Watt, Marius Wernig; Photo by Constance Brukin

In late 2017, we hosted the eleventh biennial CSHL meeting on Plant Genomes & Biotechnology: From Genes to Networks. The meeting debuted in 1997, and there have been monumental advances in the field during the intervening two decades. We met with meeting organizers David Jackson, Todd Mockler, and Jane Parker for a quick chat to hear their thoughts on the field’s evolution.

Jane: One obvious advance to me, and it struck me at this meeting particularly when compared to the one two years ago, is this merging of computation and high-end sequencing. It’s transforming biology and bringing together different disciplines that center around it.
Todd: I would echo the point that sequencing has changed all of biology. I don’t think there’s a single talk at this meeting that hasn’t been impacted by cheap, fast, genome sequencing. The 1997 meeting was when the Arabidopsis genome was the first plant genome to be sequenced.
David: It wasn’t even finished.
Todd: And now just about every plant that’s been discussed here has a sequenced genome. That’s been revolutionary. It’s changed everything. 
David: I will add CRISPR. It’s a more recent advance, but it allows us to use all of this genome sequencing data to go in and modify plant genomes and find out what they’re doing. We had a session dedicated to CRISPR this year and we heard CRISPR talks in several other sessions.

Having had attended the 1997 Plant Genomes meeting, David took us on a quick trip down Memory Lane before the organizers collectively listed what’s changed – and stayed the same – about the meeting. 

David: During the first meeting in 1997, I remember driving into Huntington in the back of someone’s pickup truck and it was absolutely freezing. It’s a lot warmer this year, the climate has gotten warmer. And the food’s a lot better. There’s also less focus on Arabidopsis, although it’s still incredibly important as a model. With the new tools, we’ve seen really impressive talks using other plants that five years ago wouldn’t have been possible.
Jane: I would endorse that. Less focus, perhaps, on individual components but a broader focus on trends and processes that are enabled by new tools and technologies.
Todd: My perspective is shorter because I’ve only come for the last four meetings. I think the caliber of science is the same but the topics have changed, because there’s this march of technology. There’s a lot more research that has computational aspects, bioengineering, ‘omics, and all kinds of  genomic analysis. It’s just the nature of where science is going. In my memory, we had more engineering and modeling this year – almost purely computational things – and that’s really interesting. Those are some of the coolest presentations that I’ve seen.
Jane: And presented in such a way that people who are not in computation can understand. The communication is what I found really impressive this time.

Technology was a clear theme throughout the conversation, so we asked their thoughts about it:

Todd: It’s a net good but – even as I made the comment about fast, cheap sequencing being revolutionary – you can’t answer every question with sequencing, right? There’s still a place for biochemistry and other basic biological techniques. 
David: They go hand in hand. The more you can do in science, the more need you have to develop the technology, and that invents more science. I’ve had this concern that as science moves more quickly, as CRISPR did, people may become less interactive because it’s much easier to get scooped. I work in maize and at the Maize Meeting we talk about genetic projects that may take 2 or 3 years to get to a certain point, so you don’t feel bad talking about it before publication. But with CRISPR, I can go to my lab now and design a construct in about a month. But I haven’t seen that occur much; people are still interactive so this isn’t yet an issue. 

An intimate meeting, the organizers commented on how Cold Spring Harbor plays a major role in the overall atmosphere at Plant Genomes & Biotechnology.

Jane: I think a lot of people come here because they appreciate the breadth of topics. I certainly do.
Todd: I think the breadth and the small size.
Jane: And the informality that goes with the small size. The students and postdocs don’t feel too intimidated and so there’s lots of discussion.
Todd: During the breaks, there’s always lots of conversation.
David: It’s quite a diverse meeting. I was commenting to one of my non-plant colleagues that it’s very diverse and they said, “But it’s all on plants!” And I said, “Well, you don’t have a meeting called ‘Animals’, you have a meeting on one pathway in animals!” 

Our discussion concluded on their attendee wish list; specifically, who they would like to see more of at the next meeting. 

Jane: As many postdocs and students as we can get in, really getting labs to support them coming. 
David: It’s always great to get lots of young people. I think this meeting is especially great for graduate students who are close to finishing. They can present their work and also look for a postdoc position, because they can meet lots of different people in different areas.
Todd: A type of attendee that I’d like to see more of is program officers from funding agencies. This year, we had someone from the Gates Foundation and in the past we’ve had people from NSF attend. 
David: Yeah, they hear about the science which helps them in future rounds of funding. It’s also great for faculty - especially junior faculty - to interact with program officers because it helps their grant proposals. 

The Plant Genomes & Biotechnology: From Genes to Networks meeting returns to the Laboratory in 2019. Also, every summer, we offer the Frontiers and Techniques in Plant Science course.

For more conversation with other meeting organizers, check out the rest of our A Word From series. 

Visitor of the Week: Lei Lei

Photo provided by Lei Lei

Photo provided by Lei Lei

Meet Lei Lei, an associate editor at Nature Plants since September 2016. On campus for the 2017 Plant Genomes & Biotechnology: From Genes to Networks meeting, Lei and other fellow meeting-goers celebrate the great progress the plant science field has made over the last two decades while they also discuss upcoming and exciting advances in plant genomes and biotechnology. Lei obtained her Ph.D. degree in Plant Biology from the Pennsylvania State University. Her previous research covers the regulatory mechanisms of cellulose biosynthesis, microtubule organization and embryo development in plants. As a member of the editorial team of Nature Plants, Lei handles manuscripts regarding plant metabolism, physiology, cell biology and ecology. She is based in the New York office of Springer Nature.

What areas of plant research is your journal most interested in?
Nature Plants covers the full range of disciplines concerned with plants. More details about the aims and scope can be found here.

What is your key takeaway from the Meeting?
There is already so much fantastic progress achieved in crop breeding and metabolic engineering, while more incredibly novel approaches and applications are oncoming.

How many CSHL meetings and/or courses have you attended? Will you be attending any other near future CSHL courses and/or meetings?
This is my first one. I will be looking forward to any future CSHL meetings related to plant sciences.

Was there something specific about this meeting that drew you to attend?
I am particularly interested in some topics covered in the meeting like Metabolism, Biotechnology, Biodiversity. I also received a kind invitation from Ullas Pedmale a few months ago that helped me make up my mind.

If someone (for example, another editor) is curious in attending this meeting were to ask you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
I would strongly recommend it. CSHL is so close to our office and we have plenty of travel options. Prior to the event, the digital meeting package (including maps, parking permit, train info, shuttle schedule, and registration details etc.) is super helpful to schedule my travel plan. The meeting itself is perfectly sized and very well-organized. No need to emphasize more on the fascinating science talks and discussions in the meeting, I would say that CSHL is like a science camp that anyone who has deep love in science (not only plant science) should come and see.

What do you like most about your time at CSHL? 
The campus is scenic and historical. Living and dining on the beautiful campus made it an excellent time to make new friends :)

Thank you to Lei for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.

Visitor of the Week: Saleh Tamim


Meet Saleh Tamim of the University of Delaware. The bioinformatics and systems biology PhD student is a member of Blake Meyer's lab in the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Saleh is on campus for the Frontiers and Techniques in Plant Science course. Read on for what the CSHL first-timer has to say about the annual course and his experience so far. 

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
My research interests generally involve the application of bioinformatics and computational techniques to address biological problems. I am currently investigating a class of small RNAs (phasiRNAs) that are highly abundant in grass reproductive tissues.  

Was there something specific about the Frontiers and Techniques in Plant Science course that drew you to apply? 
Coming from a computational background, I applied for this course to learn more about different plant research work and respective techniques used to answer biological questions.

What is your key takeaway form the Course? 
My key takeaway from the course is that plant biology is diverse, and that there are still a lot of unanswered questions. I learned that it is important to focus and specialize on a particular area of interest, and to embrace collaboration when a research problem requires skills outside your main area of research. 

If someone curious in attending your course asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her? 
I will definitely encourage him/her to apply. I think the acquired knowledge as well as interaction (with both speakers and fellow participants) throughout the course is unique and very valuable to someone interested in plant biology.  

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
I love the campus, it is beautiful. I also enjoyed meeting different people from different parts of the world.

Saleh received financial aid from the Helmsley Charitable Trust. On behalf of Saleh, thank you to the Helmsley Charitable Trust for supporting and enabling our young scientists to attend a CSHL course where they expand their skills, knowledge, and network. 

Thank you to Saleh for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course – go here.