Photo:

Alexander Taylor

Thank you all so much for the fun and interesting questions - I learned a lot and I hope you did too!

Favourite Thing: Talking about unanswered questions at the edge of scientific knowledge, thinking about what those answers might be, and designing experiments to test them.

My CV

Education:

University of Michigan

Qualifications:

M.S., Evolutionary Biology (University of Michigan)

Work History:

Landscaping and gardening company, Shoe salesman, Manager of the VA Hospital genetics repository, University of Michigan Graduate Student Instructor

Current Job:

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, PhD Candidate and Graduate Student Instructor

Employer:

University of Michigan

Me and my work

I study how certain plants evolved the ability to recognize and partner with bacteria in the soil.

This might seem gross, but right now, there are about 100 trillion bacteria living and growing inside you. They’re in your gut, in your mouth, all over your skin. The good news is that most of these bacteria are actually good for you! They help you digest your food and fight off disease-causing bacteria. And humans aren’t the only ones filled with helpful bacteria; animals and plants have many bacterial partners. I study a particular partnership that some plants, particularly legumes (like beans, peas, and lentils) make with a certain kind of bacteria. These bacteria can make the building blocks of protein out of thin air, and they trade them with the plant in exchange for sugar. This partnership is called “nodulation” because the plants grow their bacterial buddies in organs called “nodules” on their roots. Plants that can nodulate are very important, because they’re one of our main sources of protein, and they fertilize the soil in farm fields. I study how plants evolve the ability to nodulate, by comparing the DNA of plants that can nodulate with the DNA of plants that can’t.

My Typical Day

Working on a supercomputer comparing DNA sequences, infecting plants with bacteria in a greenhouse, teaching classes, listening to other scientists talk about their work.

I’m interested in how plants evolved the ability to nodulate, and why only certain families of plants can do it. So I’m figuring out the genetic differences between plants that can and cannot nodulate. I do this by growing a nodulating plant, autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), and then infecting its roots with their bacterial partners.

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Matthaei Botanical Gardens at the University of Michigan, where I grow autumn olive

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I collect the roots and run experiments to see which genes are turned on or off while the plant is being infected with the bacteria. Then I compare the DNA sequences of these genes against the genes of other nodulating plants using supercomputers at the University of Michigan.

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What I'd do with the money

Build an interactive activity for museums, zoos and botanical gardens to show people how important and amazing nodulation is

Many people don’t realize how complex, beautiful and secret the life of plants can be. I love to talk to people about the partnerships that plants make with fungi and bacteria, and how amazing and important these partnerships are. I write about my research on my blog “Thought and Awe,” but my favorite way to talk about it is by showing them in person, at places like the Detroit Zoo and the Ann Arbor Summer Fest. I’d like to make my exhibit even better, so more people can learn about the amazing world of plants!

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My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Creative, Friendly, Curious

Who is your favourite singer or band?

The Talking Heads

What's your favourite food?

Sushi

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Exploring and snorkeling in caves below Mayan ruins in Mexico

What did you want to be after you left school?

A brain surgeon

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Who me? Never! Well, maybe once or twice

What was your favourite subject at school?

History

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Climbing mountains in China to collect plant specimens

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

Jurassic Park

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

A writer

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

To grow a flourishing vegetable garden, have a happy family, and write a good book

Tell us a joke.

I, for one, like Roman numerals!

Other stuff

Work photos:

Matthaei Botanical Gardens, the greenhouse where I grow my study plant:

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They have a pretty great rainforest exhibit too:

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Then I extract genetic information in the lab:

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Comparing DNA on a supercomputer (note: coffee, the fuel of science)

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Sharing my work at the Detroit Zoo:

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Growing plants for my Zoo activities in my vegetable garden:

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My friend and collaborator at the University of Nanjing, Xiao Yi, climbing the Huangshan mountains to collect plants:

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