Interview with Monika Madlen Vetter, Ph.D.

Monika Madlen Vetter, PhD,  works at  University of Chicago · Department of Ecology and Evolution. Marco Mambelli and I interviewed her as part of our "Going out of the door" strategy to learn what R Statistical project users do. The product we delivered in Beta is Bosco R We wanted to discover the data scientist, but Dr. Vetter is much more than just a Data Scientist. I always look around for what fascinates and her story is amazing. She explains  science in simple words but the genomic studies of plants is a complex science, normally hidden to the casual observer.

How important is the usage of statistics in your research?

MV: Very important! My work has two components: conducting an experiment in the laboratory or green house and later analyzing the gathered data. I use R for most of my statistical and graphical analysis. More specifically, I use a method called genome wide association (GWA) study to identify the genetic loci controlling the interactions between plants and bacteria.

What is a GWA?

MV: A genome-wide association study aims to identify genes controlling the variation in a trait.   Most traits, however, are complex – most diseases for instance. Many genes contribute to hypertension or diabetes in humans. Statistical methods help elucidate these complex genetic traits. Scientific knowledge progressed a lot since the first human genome was sequenced in 2000. We have begun to understand the genetic basis of many diseases using genome-wide association studies.

You work on the innate immunity of plants. We live in a world where particle physics dominate the headlines, this is not a widely covered theme in the media

MV: *laughs* Yes, if I talk about my research, many people react with surprise when realizing that plants actually DO HAVE an immune system. Plants cannot run away to escape pathogens, which constantly threaten their survival and reproduction. They do not have antibodies and we therefore often describe the plant immune system as simple. Yet, it does a pretty good job, which is evident by a green world around us.

I investigate the evolution of innate immunity in plants. Immune receptors of the plant model species Arabidopsis thaliana recognize molecular signals, which are unique to bacteria. The perception of these signals triggers a general and effective defense response but is also accompanied with reduction in plant growth. My current work identified several genetic loci, which control these growth changes upon stimulation of the immune system. Another project investigates how plants shape the bacterial community within their leaves.

What is your biggest challenge on a daily basis?

MV:  [thinking a bit]. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to stay focused on the problem and one specific research questions. So many interesting possibilities and questions distract me. I guess having many new thoughts and a creative mind is also what makes a good scientist.

Does your work move in the direction pharmaceutical research?

MV: I am especially fascinated by how plants modulate their immune responses and growth in response to biotic and abiotic environments but it does not directly aim at developing an application or product. Basic knowledge does lead to innovation on the long run. A crop breeder might use this knowledge to make a plant more resistant against pests while maintaining yield for instance.

What motivated you to select this career?

MV: I like to get to the bottom of things and I was interested in plant biology early in my childhood. My parents would have liked me to be a physician but I could not get around cutting someone open – even for the prospect of helping them. I was interested in lichens instead. Three totally different organisms come together to create a form of life with properties which none of them has by itself. How cool is that!

All creatures struggle to let in nutrients and vent wastes. We know a lot at human level. What about the plant level?

MV: We declare waste as unwanted materials but one’s waste is another’s necessity. The photosynthesis of plants produces sugars from water and sunlight. What they release – their waste so to speak, is oxygen, which is crucial to most other life forms on the planet. Otherwise plants do not consume living matter so they do not have unwanted by-products they would need to get rid of.

Heavy metals can be a problem in plants. They either need an excretion system or a high tolerance when growing in soil contaminated by heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic, mercury or lead. If the plant accumulates those metals, humans can harvest and depose the plants to clean soil. However, it can also be a problem to human health if we eat these plants. Some plants accumulate heavy metals to get resistant to herbivores. There is a lot of fun research ongoing.

In terms of nutrients, plants struggle just as much as other organisms. Their growth will be limited if they lack certain minerals. You might know that from a ‘sad looking’ plant on your windowsill. It might not get all nutrients from its regular water supply. You need to fertilize or re-pot it, too.

How U of Chicago stimulated your work?

MV: The University of Chicago supplies fantastic research facilities, helps with bureaucracy and provides a stimulating research environment. My co-workers come from diverse  (biological) disciplines, which leads to different viewpoints and lively discussions.

What would be in your opinion the biggest achievement as a scientist?

MV: *laughs* Perhaps I am not idealistic enough to think that my research can solve grandiose  humanity problems. However, my research has relevance to food safety, pathogen resistance and stability of yield in crops. On a smaller scale I am happy to share my passion about biological processes with students or lay people.

August 8, 2013 in Chicago

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