Plant Scientist Interview


I am Plant Scientist Adrienne Godschalx, & this is how I work.

Reposted from an interview for the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) blog on the forum Plantae. Thank you Ian Street, @IHStreet for this opportunity!


Location: Portland State University

Current job/title: PhD Candidate

One word that describes how you work: Curious.

Favorite thing you do at work: Connecting results back to theoretical framework in my writing, and designing new experiments to approach big questions.

Favorite plant: Lima bean. The more I study the symbioses with bacteria providing nutrients in the roots and with ants providing protection for leaves, I have a growing affinity for this bean plant that makes many cringe at the dinner table. Just do not eat lima beans raw- they contain another defense, toxic cyanide.

One interesting project you have been working on: My bottom-up food web project: With sugars from photosynthesis and nutrients from the soil, plants only have so much to work with to grow, reproduce, and not get devoured by everything else in the food web. I study how, when, and where plants put these resources to work. Plants make defense chemicals that are either directly toxic or send a signal to predators that patrol herbivore-prone surfaces. Both direct and indirect defenses can shift when plants form a photosynthetically-expensive relationship with microbes. How do nitrogen-fixing bacteria alter the plant's ability to draw in predator bodyguards?

What are some tools, apps, or websites that you use or visit every day? Do you have a favorite resource? 1. My personal favorite scientific communication tool is Instagram (@agodschalx). A photo is worth 1,000 words, and my friends, family, and colleagues seem to tolerate and even enjoy seeing my plant science work and perspectives.

2. Reading these blogs periodically seem to influence my writing for the better: withoutbullshit.com and schimelwritingscience.wordpress.com

3. My latest source of inspiration is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.

If you could eliminate one thing that you spend a lot of time doing, what would it be? Removing or treating plants in the greenhouse to get rid of pests. Ironically, studying plant defenses does not keep my experimental plants free of thrips and aphids contained in a greenhouse throughout the cold, rainy winters in Portland. I run most of my experiments in the summer outside on a concrete pad behind the greenhouse where plants get summer sunshine and a break from the resident greenhouse pests. Obtaining a quality plant trait dataset requires a set of healthy plants.

If a magical scientific genie appeared from an erlenmeyer flask in your lab, what would you ask for? Outdoor school programs throughout the country like the one here in Oregon that inspired my journey as a scientist. Learning ecology in the forest from high school role models transforms the way sixth graders in Oregon learn about plants, soil, water, and animals. By seeing, touching, and questioning how it all works together with curiosity, this experiential education model is founded in creating a community and empowering high school students and sixth graders alike to become leaders and develop confidence in their strengths and ability to learn and even teach science.

What have been the biggest productivity tools you’ve been using either for a long time or recently adopted? My editing buddy. Early in graduate school, a fellow PhD student and I traded grant proposals in a writing class and have continued to do so ever since. She studies snake sex hormones and I study plant defenses, so both of us have to write clearly enough to explain to a scientist outside of our own fields,and we have learned other's writing style, including strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly, we generated a crazy amount of trust over the manuscript and grant proposal cycles, so receiving her feedback enables me to detach emotionally from the pride I previously loaded into my paragraphs. I was also surprised to notice my review skills were primed for my first peer-reviews because of editing her work consistently and honestly as a result of our mutual trust.

What’s an obstacle to doing an experiment that you figured out a solution to? Quantifying symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria living in root nodules required me to count nodules, but I was only able to count so many within one day. Training a team of undergraduate research assistants not only made it possible to count thousands of nodules on each of 30 plants within two weeks, but they make lab work more fun.

An obstacle I have worked for years to overcome within training my undergraduate students was my own imposter syndrome. Often I did not know how to run the procedure, had to look up a conversion equation, or have a plan laid out for our experimental design and timeline. The moment I let my students see behind the curtain and work through these challenges together, the more I realized the purpose of mentorship in the lab is about learning the process of doing science. This approach allowed several of my students to shine and develop new friendships through group problem-solving. I now do most of my work in this community-building type of setting when possible.


What’s some of the best advice you’ve ever received?

Follow your bliss. My dad repeats this one as a mantra, and he is one of the most playful, passionate, alive people I know, so it seems to work for him. It has proven successful in my life as well. That which draws my attention, my curiosity, my joy, can lead me to living passionately and creatively. I try to pay attention to where I see beauty. This can be physical, which is easy to find in nature, and impossible to avoid when doing field work: watching tiny parasitoid wasps hover between plants and suddenly freeze in place delicately on the edge of a lima bean leaf, so lightly it seems to not even touch the leaf itself has an effect on me. I also watch for beauty in ideas, in assembling words to portray a concept, and in the qualities my students bring to our team. Watching for beauty makes connecting with anyone simple and necessary.

How do you learn new things? New information really only sticks when I need to actually apply it. I constantly need to apply what I know in order to teach those concepts, and I love learning through teaching. Experimentally, I recently learned how to use MV=MV after needing to adjust the concentration of various reagents and sugar concentration of extrafloral nectar, even though I learned the concept years before. Similarly, when I write a discussion for my manuscripts, I realize how little I know about nitrogen movement through xylem in plant stems or the specific volatile organic compound biosynthesis pathways until I need to connect the results from an experiment to what might be going on in the biology of that plant system.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What's your secret? My co-PhD Candidate in our lab gave me a phenomenal compliment at a conference when, during the poster session and networking hour, he said, "I just want to follow you around with a pen and paper and take notes". My strength in networking comes because I love making real connections, especially when I get to share my passion for what I do in my corner of the science world with other people who care. I use three tangible secrets: 1. Learn, remember, and use names. Do this everywhere in your life, even on the phone with this Comcast representative and watch the magic unfold. 2. Ask questions. Everyone has a wealth of conversation material to share about themselves if you open the floodgates. 3. Lower your voice. This has a calming effect on everyone, even anxious, stressed-out, or too-busy-for-you advisors or administrators. This also works like magic.

What do you do when the pipette is down and the computer is powered off? I love to dance. Somewhere I lost all social filters that would have allowed me to keep some cool points, but instead I feel all too comfortable dancing anytime, anywhere, which resulted in doing the worm on the dance floor at last year's conference banquet... Recently I put my powers to work and I now teach a Zumba class in SE Portland!


What do you spend time thinking about that’s not your next proposal, publication, or project deadline? My daydreams oscillate from imagining the plant biology concepts I am testing to wondering why any of what I do matters.

As I stare at the Maple tree out the window and picture a cloud of chemicals interacting with the air, the buzzing insects, and the shrub down the street, I try to visualize all of what I know on the abstract cellular, biochemical, and ecological level at work in that tree and having a real hand in how the whole system works in this zoomed-out perspective.

Within this space, I often reflect on how I spend my time in this one wild and precious life. Does spending my workday thinking about what happens inside of a leaf make this world any better? In order to answer yes to myself, I know I need to use this chance I am given equipped with opportunity and a greater than average passion for plant biology to connect. I heard once that what it means to be human is to connect with each other, and I use my plant science as my vessel for that connection. Maybe one day when I have tenure I can sign up for even more ways to give back as Dr. Hope Jahren writes in her blog post about tenure.

Plant biology has long been a field of pioneering discoveries with broad impacts. What’s the next pioneering discovery in plant biology? We expect a lot from plants. In a growing population with a changing climate we still plan to rely on plants for food, shelter, biofuel, as well as keep their day job driving the ecosystem services that plants power in every forest, field and desert. Discovering how plants navigate all of their needs simultaneously within the bigger picture of ecological context (nutrients and water--which they often get with the help of microbes, pollination and seed dispersal with the help of the flapping and buzzing critters, etc), may be the only way we can learn how to ask plants to keep up with us. Genetic modification as a technology might get us closer as well, but only if we can understand the holistic picture of plant science to optimize any one branch.

What is one way readers can get in touch or follow along with your work (email, blog, twitter, etc.)? While working as a bartender at a Peruvian restaurant, I was shocked to discover how universal human curiosity is as guests wanted to hear more about my research. I started Science Martini as a way to share plant biology, but with a twist (get it?): my blog writing is my creative practice to use words to capture various facets of this passion that makes me a scientist. I write blog posts to describe the main point of my papers as well as the process of growing up as a scientist and celebrating the products of curiosity and community along the way. Besides, how many ideas in science were conceived on a paper napkin over drinks at a conference? This raw brainstorming and excitement is the feeling I want to share through my writing.


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