Tackling food shortages – careers in biology

”We’re rapidly approaching a situation where we can’t produce enough food to feed a growing population.”

See Jane Langdale discuss her work to feed the world in this BBC documentary, then find out more about what its like to have a career in biology. In this interview, she talks to us about her job and her career in plant science so far.

What’s your job title?

I’m Research Professor in Plant Developmental Genetics, and Head of Department in Plant Sciences at the University of Oxford. This is largely an administrative job – I’m responsible for a department of 200 people, and I view my job as making the environment in which they work as good as possible. There are 25 different research groups in my department. All the different people have different needs, so I need to make sure that their need are all balanced, and of course I need to make sure that there’s enough money. I’ve also got a research group myself. We’re a team of 8 people, working to improve the productivity of rice by introducing traits from plants which use C4 photosynthesis.

”If we could introduce C4 photosynthesis traits into plants like wheat and rice, we could feed far more people than we can now.”

Why’s your research important?

We’re rapidly approaching a situation where we cant produce enough food to feed a growing population. Our group is part of an international research consortium trying to tackle this. In the majority of plants, including rice, photosynthesis isn’t as efficient as it could be, so plants aren’t as productive. In these plants, CO2 is first fixed into a compound with three carbons (C3) by the enzyme Rubisco – this is known as C3 photosynthesis. Rubisco is inherently inefficient because it can also catalyze a reaction with oxygen in the air, giving a wasteful process known as photorespiration (rather than photosynthesis). However, some plants have a more efficient version of photosynthesis, called C4. C4 plants evolved at least 50 times independently, to be more productive in hot and dry environments. They use less nitrogen and less water than other plants, so if we could introduce C4 photosynthesis traits into plants like wheat and rice, we could feed far more people than we can now. You can read more about our research on our web pages.

What’s a typical work day like for you?

I get up at 7.30, let the dogs out, clear my emails while reading breakfast, and then leave for work. I arrive at about 9.15, and start by checking with the Departmental Administrator if there are any issues to sort out. Then I say hello to everyone in the lab, and check if there are any problems there. If it’s term time, I’ll probably have some lectures to give to my students. I have an ‘open office door’, so people are welcome to pop in with questions at any time. Once a week, I meet with each of the people in my lab, to review what they’re doing. Meanwhile, I sit at my desk and get on with whatever needs to be done. The jobs can be very different, and some are much more enjoyable than others. Right now, I’m writing a review of the C4 rice project, and earlier this year, I wrote a book on how to succeed as a scientist. But in July, I spent two weeks going through the accounts for the Department. Next week, I’m going to Vienna for a four day conference. So you can see, my work days can be quite different. I usually leave for home at about 6.30pm, ready to walk my dogs.

”Teamwork is very important in science, especially in a lab. It’s very social. When I was in the lab as a post-doc, it was the most social time of my life.”

What makes a good scientist?

There are lots of career skills that go to making a good scientist, but I think you need to be analytical, good at seeing different ways of solving problems, open minded, and you need to enjoy working as part of a team.

Teamwork is very important for a job in science, especially in a lab. It’s very social. When I was in the lab as a post-doc, it was the most social time of my life. There’s a lot of travel, which is very exciting when you’re young. It’s a fantastic job, because you go all over the world.

What advice would you give to a teenager thinking about a career in biology?

Don’t give up maths at school! All science is becoming more mathematically focused, and people who don’t have maths find it more difficult.

What are the most important challenges for plant science today?

The most important scientific challenge is definitely increasing crop yields in face of the changing environment. In policy, the big challenge is to get the public to move forward on GM crops. We need to achieve a public acceptance of the use of GM technologies, as we will not be able to feed the world without them. GM technologies have to form part of the approach, not all of it, but part.

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