By Kevin Cox Jr.
From July 30th - August 4th, 2023, 120+ attendees gathered in Ventura, California for the first Gordon Research Conference (GRC) in Single-Cell Approaches in Plant Biology. This conference was organized by committee members of the Plant Cell Atlas, who sought to bring together a community of individuals that are using technologies in plants to dissect the functions and interactions of specialized cell types and their capacity to respond to environmental changes, interact with other organisms, grow, and reproduce. In this blog post, I recount interviews of five individuals that attended the conference and summarize their responses to some of the questions I asked them.
Motivation for attending the conference
All the interviewees mentioned that there was a lack of conferences focused on single-cell approaches in plants. Each of them was working on projects related to this area and were excited to finally have a conference that allowed them to discuss common obstacles and discover different methods that would be applicable to their projects.
“I wanted to attend the GRC to share and get feedback and advice on my single-cell project. I was also excited to go to a smaller conference!” – Lily O’Connor, Graduate Student, Washington University in St. Louis/Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Favorite thing about the conference
While there was no question that the science being discussed was outstanding, a common theme that was brought up as an answer to this question was the interactions with other people. GRCs are a unique setting where they bring together a small community, in a small, isolated space to not only discuss science directly related to their projects, but to also build networks and potential collaborations with other people. In addition, the daily afternoon break, the nightly social at the end of each day, and the frequent coffee breaks in between sessions provided some fun interactions.
“For me, it was meeting other people. I’m new to this area of science and meeting a lot of people that I have previously known online has been really good.” – Shuyao Kong, Graduate Student, Cornell University
The interviewees were impressed by the speaker selections, particularly with the number of early career researchers presenting. The diversity of topics covered in this conference was also a strength, as it covered a huge range of biology from single-cell profiling to whole plant phenotyping. Moreover, the organization of the talks was well-curated and thought out that allowed the attendees to see how these different areas of biology can ultimately be applicable to their research.
“The speaker selection covered a wide range of biology – I liked that personally as it helps you think broadly about the types of techniques you can incorporate in your projects. I can’t pick a favorite session because there were too many good ones!” – Macy Vollbrecht, Graduate Student, Stanford University
Visibility of the Plant Cell Atlas
When I asked about whether they knew about the Plant Cell Atlas (PCA) before the GRC, the responses were mixed. Responses ranged from knowing everything about the PCA, to recognizing the name but unaware of what the PCA did, to never hearing about it at all. After the conference, all of them were very supportive of its mission, the activities it produces, and how it was composed of community members from diverse career stages and backgrounds.
“A lot of the conversations I have had with other attendees mentioned that this conference has been a really good recruitment tool for people that might be interested in joining the Plant Cell Atlas committee. It’s also a good networking opportunity for those that are already apart of the PCA.” – Dr. Heather McFarlane, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto
Looking ahead to the GRC in 2025
Overall, there was a strong consensus from the interviewees (and from other attendees I informally chatted with) that this was a very successful meeting. I personally can’t wait to return for the next PCA GRC in 2025 and seeing this community again.
“Oh, absolutely and I would like to be a speaker at that conference! It seems like the perfect place to get feedback and disseminate information on single-cell projects in plant biology.” – Dr. Bryan Ramirez-Corona, Postdoctoral Associate, University of Washington
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Meet Oluwatoyosi Adaramodu, also known as Lisa, co-founder of Afro in Bio and winner of the 2023 PCA Travel Award. She will be presenting a poster at the Single-Cell Approaches in Plant Biology Gordon Research Conference in Ventura, CA on July 30 - August 4, 2023. Read an interview with Oluwatoyosi (Lisa) Adaramodu below!
Interviewer: Can you share a bit of your background?
“I am a proud Nigerian and the daughter of a low-income, single parent. I earned my undergraduate degree in plant biotechnology from a Nigerian institution and completed my master’s degree in China at the University of Chinese Academy of Science last year. Each identifier holds significance to me because there was a time when I believed it wasn’t possible to embody all of these at once. I experienced firsthand the limitations that STEM education in Africa presents for students like me. The lack of laboratories, qualified STEM teachers, high student-to-teacher ratios, and limited financial resources meant that STEM education in many Nigerian universities was limited to theoretical learning with little to no research opportunities.
My interest in plant molecular research became more apparent when I participated in a six-month Plant Biotechnology training program at the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) in Abuja, Nigeria, as well as the National Centre for Genetic Resource and Biotechnology in Ibadan, Nigeria. These experiences helped me to apply what I had learned in class to real-world research.
Desiring to expand my knowledge of plant molecular biology and genome engineering, I applied for the Plant Developmental Biology master’s program at the Institute of Botany, University of Chinese Academy of Science. I applied through the Belt and Road Fellowship program and was fortunate to have Professor Jing, a renowned plant genomics researcher in China, supervise me. Currently, I am a first-year PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, under the guidance of Professors Brian Gregory and Brent Helliker.”
Interviewer: What are your research interests that you hope to pursue?
“As a new graduate student at UPenn, my research interests focus on crop improvement in the face of climate change, specifically through the adaptation of grasses to drought stress. My interest in crop plants began during my undergraduate years, and continued through my master’s degree, where I conducted research on 250 sorghum lines from different origins across the globe to examine their response to salt stress through genome-wide mapping, identifying novel QTLs/genes, and screening novel germplasm for salinity-tolerance. This research formed the foundation for my current research interests. I am now interested in studying bulliform cells, a type of cell found only in grasses, and their role in the adaptation of grasses to drought stress. Through my research, I hope to contribute to the development of more drought-tolerant crop varieties, ultimately contributing to the stability of food systems in the face of climate change.”
Interviewer: How do you think the Plant Cell Atlas benefits your research?
“The Plant Cell Atlas provides me with valuable opportunities to further my research career in academia, as well as to enhance my current research on the potential of bulliform cells in food security. One of the main benefits of the Plant Cell Atlas is the opportunity to connect with leading experts in plant single-cell research. This allows me to gain valuable insights and perspectives on the latest research and advancements in the field, which would in turn inform my own research and help me to identify new areas of investigation. Additionally, the Plant Cell Atlas provides me with opportunities to network with other researchers and scientists, both established and early career, which could lead to future collaborations and opportunities for further research.”
Interviewer: You are a co-founder for Afro in Bio. Can you share more about how that got started, what is it about, and what are some of the goals of Afro in Bio?
“My friend, who is a PhD student at Yale, and I started Afro in Bio in 2022. It is a community for Africans in biological science around the world. We wanted to create a space where African scientists could connect with each other, share their experiences and knowledge, and support each other in their careers. The goals of Afro in Bio are to provide a platform for African scientists to connect, share resources and information, and support each other in their career development. We also aim to promote diversity and inclusion in the field of biological science by highlighting the contributions of African scientists and providing opportunities for underrepresented groups to succeed in the field.
Since its inception, Afro in Bio database has grown to include members from various countries across the globe. We believe that by bringing African scientists together, we can create a supportive community that will help to break down barriers and promote success in biological science.”
Interviewer: What are your future career aspirations?
“Upon completion of my PhD degree in biology, my future career aspiration is to secure a postdoctoral fellowship position that will allow me to delve deeper into my research interests in plant stress biology. Specifically, I hope to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms underlying plant response to environmental stressors and the potential applications of this research in improving food security and sustainable agriculture practices."
Interviewer: How did you find out about the PCA Travel Award and what motivated you to apply?
“I found out about the award and the conference through one of the professors in my department whose class on cell signaling I took last semester. I told her about my interest in Bulliform cells and single-cell transcriptomics in plants.”
Interviewer: What are some things you are looking forward to when you attend the Gordon Research Conference in Single-Cell Approaches in Plant Biology this summer?
“I am excited about attending the Gordon Research Conference in Single-Cell Approaches in Plant Biology this summer, as I am looking forward to presenting a poster on my research for the first time. Additionally, I am eager to meet researchers whose papers I have read, which I hope will provide me with valuable insights and potentially even lead to future collaborations.
My current research focuses on the potential of bulliform cells to improve food security, as it has been demonstrated that these cells have a crucial role in plant tolerance to environmental stress. Attending the conference would allow me to learn about the latest research on plant stress response, which would inform my own research and help me to identify new areas of investigation. In addition, by presenting my own research on bulliform cells at the conference, I would be able to receive feedback and comments from experts in the field, which would be extremely valuable to improve my research.”
Interviewer: Dr. Kevin Cox.
Written responses by: Oluwatoyosi (Lisa) Adaramodu
If you are interested in Oluwatoyosi (Lisa) Adaramodu’s work, please follow her on Instagram (@the_nigerian_phd), Twitter (@yoursorghumgirl), or contact her through email (oadar@sas.UPenn.edu).
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Meet Joan Josephine C. Kimutai, winner of the “Best Talk” award at the JR Biotek-PCA Africa Ph.D. Scholars Mentoring Program Celebration. Joan is a team-oriented plant breeder with experience in classical and molecular methods of crop improvement. Her goal is to develop stress-tolerant crop varieties suitable for smallholder farmers in different agro-ecologies of Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa in general.
As a child, Joan dreamed about pursuing a career in medical science. When she grew up, Joan enrolled in a Bachelor of Science Degree program in Biotechnology at Kenyatta University. However, after learning about plants and their importance in food and medicine, she developed a strong interest in plant biotechnology and dedicated herself to the field. After years of training, Joan now holds a Master of Science degree in Plant Breeding and Biotechnology (The University of Nairobi) and is a Ph.D. fellow at the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI), University of Ghana and is pursuing Plant Breeding. She is currently a visiting student at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT, Kenya). At CIMMYT, she is conducting her Ph.D. research titled “Genetic Analysis of Striga (Striga hermonthica (Del)) Benth. Resistance in Maize”. The objective of the research is to contribute to increased maize genetic gains through the application of genomic approaches in the development of Striga-resistant varieties.
In addition to her studies, Joan previously worked at Agriscope Africa Limited. She has diverse experience with field and greenhouse experimental procedures, molecular techniques (including plant tissue culture procedures), and statistical, genetic, and molecular data analyses using various software and bioinformatics tools. Joan is a team player with excellent communication, managerial, and leadership skills. She is a dependable, extremely self-motivated, innovative, open-minded, and charismatic learner who is passionate about improving livelihoods through the development of climate-resilient, disease, and pest-tolerant crops for improved food security and nutrition. Joan is currently working on finishing her Ph.D. project and will be looking to join a breeding program or a postdoctoral research position soon. At this time, she is very passionate about learning more about GWAS, genomic selection, and genomic prediction tools, and gaining hands-on experience. If you are interested in Joan's work, please follow her on Twitter (@Joan458), LinkedIn (Joanne Kimutai), or contact her through email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Learn more about Joan by watching the interview above conducted by PCA members Dr. Kevin Cox, Dr. Terry Jackson, and Elena Lazarus. (Video edits by Terry Jackson).
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