What is Plant Biology? (#plantbiology15)

Plant Biology is the name of the annual meeting organized by The American Society of Plant Biologists- ASPB (& sometimes co-organized with partner plant science societies from around the world).

This is one gathering of the plant science community, one of the bigger ones that occurs each year involving over 1,000 plant scientists over 5 days. This year it’s happening in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Know plants, know life. No plants, no life.

I’ll be tweeting and re-tweeting a lot during the days of the conference as well as writing a blog post here to recap the day’s goings on. I’ll try to stick to plant science stories, though the depth may not be as great as I usually do. I’ll do my best though. It’s a good writerly challenge, writing well and concisely and with good content in short windows of time.

In this post, I thought I’d talk generally about the people that come to plant biology and what our motivations for studying plant science are (though I don’t presume to speak for all plant scientists; this is decidedly my perspective).

Attendees of Plant Biology are both basic and applied researchers (sometimes basic & applied are one and the same person). We hail from academia, industry, government (e.g. USDA), and a few other places (publishers, vendors, etc.). ASPB takes the broad definition of plant science in many ways. And there’s a lot of activities surrounding the conference. It’s a chance to meet collaborators old & new, discuss ideas, and basically try to gather information, make connections, and explore the world of plant science, to delve a little deeper, to push ourselves further in our own and the collective knowledge of plants.

Something that doesn’t often come up often amongst plant scientists because it is obvious to us in many ways, is that plants are an essential part of life on Earth (yes, I know microbes too! & animals matter as well). Plants underpin human civilization. I (& many others) have made the case that agriculture permitted more communication amongst humans than ever before. It freed up more of us to not grow food, to pursue other projects, like science (though of course, formal science took a few thousand years to develop after the start of agriculture). Paper from plants allowed us to share our knowledge better than ever (I know, animal hides were written on too; probably not as abundant though). As elegant as a cave painting might be, it is not very portable or shareable medium.

All the notebooks we’ll write in at Plant Biology rely on the paper industry and trees. The food we’ll eat and coffee we drink that will keep us going during the long conference days is the result of agriculture. Getting to the conference will still rely on fossil fuels that are the bounty of ancient plant life that decayed. The air we breathe. The water we drink was probably filtered through a plant. Raw material for soil comes from decaying plants as well. These things allow humans to survive in the plant rich medium that is The Earth (at least on land).

The mission of plant science, and the part that Plant Biology plays in it, is to further understand how plants work, how they interact with their environment, and how we might apply that knowledge to the benefit of people, to manage a precious living resource well.

The mission of plant science, and the part that Plant Biology plays in it, is to further understand how plants work, how they interact with their environment, and how we might apply that knowledge to the benefit of people, to manage a precious living resource well. And discover any technology, method, or collaboration that can help further that goal. We’re curiosity driven. Even industry scientists that have a specific product to produce have that.

A lot of the discussions will be technical, full of gene names, technical methods, computer models, advanced statistics, and basically hashing out how to measure and analyze plants in a rigorous and reproducible way.

However, the conference does feel much more work-a-day than lofty ideals for why plants are important. A lot of the discussions will be technical, full of gene names, technical methods, computer models, advanced statistics, and basically hashing out how to measure and analyze plants in a rigorous and reproducible way. This is the dichotomy of science. It tells the story of nature, but to get to the narrative requires a lot of work down in the trenches, looking closely at the world and defining well nay experiments done. It is not a fast or glamorous process. Many scientists might adopt a version of the saying some writers use “I hate writing. I like having written”; “I hate science. I like having scienced”. That said, it is a real privilege to get to explore the natural world and potentially be the first person to know something new.

Many scientists might adopt a version of the saying some writers use “I hate writing. I like having written”; “I hate science. I like having scienced”

There is something of a disconnect between the nitty gritty technical details and the loftier idea that we’re studying and investigating things essential to life on Earth and civilization. In fact, the big challenge of plants science is going to be feeding a projected 9 billion people by 2050 on less arable land in the face of global climate change. Oh, and we need to preserve the environment and its biodiversity while doing so. None of this is easy, and the attendees of Plant Biology may do their small part, but these are challenges for a community, not just an individual. It requires the basic science experiments carefully probing how plants work as well as the applied products that are bred and engineered by industry. It is not just plant science either. It’s culture (e.g. watch John Oliver on Food waste), economics, and politics as well. Norman Borlaug, through his experiments and breeding program kept 1,000,000,000 people from starvation, and made Mexico a net exporter of food. We’ll need to do that again, but greater in the next 50 years. And slowly, we’ll get to solving the problem of feeding humanity both nutrition-, environment-, and culture-wise.

Ideally, a conference is a learning environment for all that attend, even though it’s easy to get overwhelmed and over-stimulated with all that’s there

Lastly, connecting is an important part of any conference.There will be networking, people seeking the next step in their careers, administrative details, funding discussions, publication discussions, and more along these lines. This is where teaching, training, learning, really are critical. Ideally, a conference is a learning environment for all that attend, even though it’s easy to get overwhelmed and over-stimulated with all that’s there (especially at a largish conference like Plant Biology).

I’ll be there covering the meeting on Twitter, discussing my science working on plant growth hormones, and participating in a workshop on plant science careers. Am I helping feed the world? No. I can learn as much as I can, communicate plant science to the best of my ability, and focus on how to design good experiments in the context of the broader field of plant science.

So welcome to Plant Biology! I hope any readers will follow along here or via Twitter (@IHStreet, #plantbiology15, @ASPB, or @plantbiology on Instagram), and learn something about plants. Even if the nitty-gritty details of plant science are confusing, I hope you’ll get something out of it. Many times, I’m confused too, but I do my best, I’ll seek out answers and just keep pursuing curiosity, learning, and teaching what I learn.


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