Cultivating curiosity and the next generation of plant scientists

Colleagues Terri Long and Anna Stepanova really want to promote plant science and make it accessible to the public.

Did you know that seeds will germinate in the dark? That solar cells mimic biological processes in plants? That plants make life on earth possible by moving nutrients from the soil to humans?

Stepanova and Long, faculty members of the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, share these fascinating facts and many more through hands-on children’s workshops in museums, bilingual modules on plant science, university courses, tours on-campus labs and mentorship for budding scientists.

Stepanova and Long are now sharing their strategies as co-authors of a new white paper on outreach, including ideas for reaching students from under-represented groups in plant science.

This is part of a national effort to attract the next generation of plant scientists and help the public appreciate the contributions plants make to our lives. A workshop supported by the National Science Foundation in 2018 inspired colleagues from across the country to work together.

We asked Long and Stepanova to talk about how they share their passion for plant science.

What motivates you to devote time to outreach work?

Anna stepanova: I think sometimes people can be blind to plants. We are on the move, in the car, and because plants are sessile (rooted in place), we tend not to notice them. Our hope is that we can get the younger generation and adults interested in what plants do for us and hopefully convince people to be careful. I know people who garden love their plants, but it’s a small community. People who live in cities walk near trees and they can take that for granted, right? They don’t think about the fact that trees purify the air for them or provide shade.

People like Terri and I are scientists, and one of our missions is to educate others and make the work we do more accessible to the public so that ordinary people understand why taxpayers’ money is. invested in basic research. Terri works on iron deficiency in plants. I work on plant hormones and plant development. So why is it important to study these areas? Why do we receive large grants for our research? We want to make it accessible so that people understand and understand why our work is needed.

Anna Stepanova, left, addresses a group of students in the lab.

In addition to helping the public appreciate plant science, you also want to inspire students to consider careers in plant science. Tell us about this goal.

Terri long: I think increasing the number of students from different socio-economic, ethnic and racial backgrounds has been a challenge in plant science. I can probably count on one hand the number of African American professors who are plant molecular biologists here in the United States, and very few of them are trained in the United States. So that reminds me a lot of the pipeline.

What can we do to interest students and visualize plants as something they could pursue in a long term career? How do we expose students from diverse backgrounds who are generally encouraged to go into medicine, instead pursuing plant biology? There are many different areas to explore in plant biology. And many students are not aware of this, so what can we do to reach out to students, provide them with educational opportunities, share examples of how to do it, not only as a career but also to to be aware in their everyday life? So that’s one thing that particularly interested me, and that’s why I was drawn to this awareness workshop with my colleagues Anna and Jose Dinneny (co-author of the Stanford University white paper).

With a few mentors who were plant scientists, what led you to become a plant biologist?

Terri long: I grew up in a farming community, close to the land. My father always took us for walks in the forests. It really intrigued me that a large part of our survival relies on plants. To this day, I am fascinated by how, as Anna said, plants are sessile, yet they do so much in silence. It’s unbelievable to me. To me, they are physiologically more complicated and more fascinating than humans. I was really intrigued by this from early childhood. Then when I found out that there were things like higher education and that you could be a scientist, that you could actually make a living by studying plants, I got hooked.

Anna, you and Jose Alonso, your husband and colleague, have done a lot of bilingual outreach work for children of all ages. How did it start?

Anna stepanova: We have a Plants4Kids program that targets elementary school children. The reason we started to focus on young children is that children have a natural curiosity and have time to invest in learning, unlike adults who are always very busy.

When my own children were small, we had to keep them occupied during spring break. We figured planting seeds would work. My children would ask me: Should we use such and such a soil? Should we put the seeds away from each other or should we put them next to each other? I said, why not try different things and see what works? I realized that they have a natural curiosity, but need guidance. So rather than tell them, okay you plant a seed per pot, I can tell them, why don’t you try different things and see what works best?

If my kids had a lot of fun with it, I felt like other kids might as well.

My husband, Jose Alonso, is from Spain. Due to its ties to Spain, we have always had Spanish speaking postdocs and we intentionally hire Spanish speaking undergraduate students to help us develop courses. We have a very talented undergraduate student Eduardo Santana who is of Mexican descent but was born and raised in the United States and is fluent in Spanish. He helped us not only with the Plants4Kids program, but also with the development of scripts for the videos. One thing we are working on right now is putting everything in a visual format, instead of having to present in the museum every time, although we will continue to go to the museum once we are cleared to return following the COVID security restrictions.

How do you reach children as they grow older?

Anna stepanova: Even though our main audience was younger children, one of my colleagues at Indiana University, Roger Innes, said to me: You know what? We used your modules in college and they loved it. We hadn’t thought of this as something of interest to older kids, but apparently it did, it worked well and it made sense for the organizers to build on something that has experienced some success rather than starting to develop a new business from scratch.

As children reach high school age, they consider a career in college. They need experiences to inflate their resumes for their college applications. We could recruit high school volunteers to come to museums with us and work with young children because they need volunteer hours. They want to have research experience because it looks really good. But whatever the initial reason, I see they are getting excited about the plants.

And the skill set you learn from gardening or just taking care of plants is something you can find rejuvenating and relaxing in your life, even if you don’t choose it as a career path. But I hope some of the kids we work with through our demos and through our website would see plant science as a career path.

Terri, in your awareness and university courses, you also insist on the environmental role of plants. What’s your strategy?

Terri long: One of the reasons we do awareness is that people understand that we are connected to plants. Using plants as models for living organisms, to understand physiological reactions, molecular actions, is an important way to help students understand science.

But now more and more people are thinking about sustainability and the impact of global warming. Plants and animals, we all share the same resource: the earth. And I think it’s important for people to be aware of plants not only as something we eat, but as the primary mechanism by which nutrients move from the soil to our bodies. Without the plants, we wouldn’t be here. And so just understand why it is important to make sure that we care for the land in such a way that the plants can survive. We have to make sure that we are doing things that are sustainable so that we can all survive.

How do you approach these problems with the college students?

Anna stepanova: We often talk about food, feed, fuel and fiber, all of which come from plants. Food and feed, we understand. But pretty much all renewable energy comes from plants in one way or another. Even the solar panels we use to capture energy from the sun try to mimic the biological processes that take place in plants. And then this fiber is the clothes we wear or the books we read. And so I have the impression that plants are the basis of everything. And sure, Terri and I are passionate about this because we chose this as a career for a reason, but we also want to share some of that excitement with others.

About Geraldine Higgins

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