A few weeks ago I posted on instagram asking for scientists to get in touch if they would like to be interviewed as part of my “Meet the scientist” feature. I was flooded with messages from scientists from all over the world- and have a few amazing scientists lined up to share their stories with you.
For this weeks Meet the Scientist I am thrilled to introduce you to Kathryn De Abreu, the first international scientist to be showcased on this blog!
Kathryn is currently a research assistant working on plant physiology at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Trinidad and Tobago, but will soon be heading back over to the UK (where she did her undergrad in Biomedicine) to start her MRes in Biological science- focusing on Plant Biology, at the University of Southampton in September.
In this interview we talk about her current role as a research assistant, as well as some of the challenges she has faced as a scientist in a developing country (something which, I must say, I had never really considered before!), and her hopes for the future.
E: What are you currently working on?
K: Being a plant physiologist, I’m not always in the traditional lab setting. You can find me mostly in the sauna that is our greenhouse on campus. Most of my plant children are housed there.
I’m currently investigating the effects of combined heat and drought stress on chlorophyll in tomatoes. Tomatoes are some of the most economically important food crops in the world. It’s also a very popular crop grown here in the Caribbean as it’s a staple in many of our local dishes. However, temperatures and drought periods are fluctuating, most times increasing, with every dry season we experience (we have only 2 seasons here; wet and dry). Therefore, food crops struggle to adapt to these harsh conditions in the field. Here at UWI, we are physiologically screening several locally-grown tomato varieties to determine their resilience to combined heat and drought stress.
We measure several parameters such as leaf temperature, and stomatal conductance (transpiration rates), however I specialize in chlorophyll content. Chlorophyll is a great indicator of heat and drought stress tolerance in plants. As chlorophyll, and associated chloroplasts are susceptible to heat and drought damage, the ability of a crop to maintain its chlorophyll quantity and integrity under these stresses is a considerably beneficial trait to have. With the findings we produce, we can then inform local farmers of the best and most profitable tomato varieties to grow in these conditions, and also inform policy makers of the current repercussions of climate change on our agricultural sector. This data can also help reduce our food import bill as we can then tailor and maximize tomato production in light of climate change.
Being a research assistant, you aren’t working on just one project, which is great as it exposes you to so many different areas in your field of study. If I’m not working on tomato abiotic stress, I’m working on water relations in cut Anthurium blooms (flowers), and its effects on senescence, with particular emphasis on chlorophyll degradation. We are screening several cultivars of blooms to investigate this phenomenon. I work with a lot of chlorophyll! For fun, I also like to passage (transfer) tissue culture cassava plants to new media. It’s a really therapeutic technique.
E: You are a research assistant at the moment, what do you do in this job?
K: It’s a demanding job being a research assistant, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Right now, I provide technical supervision on student projects, on behalf of my supervisor. I’m currently supervising a masters student for her final year thesis project, and we are working together to put things in place for our tomato screening trial which should begin soon. We are quite excited! One of my responsibilities as a technical project supervisor is training students in techniques they need to learn, practically and theoretically. I also play a part in investigating certain physiological aspects of the project and contributing original findings to my supervisor. I design certain parts of the experiment, contribute to data collection, perform data analysis and write up.
If I’m not supervising projects, I work with other PhD students within the research group on certain aspects of their projects, depending on the skill set in demand. For example, as I’m versed in chlorophyll assays, I’ve been lending my skill set to a PhD project that looks at chlorophyll degradation in Anthurium blooms over time. It’s great to be able to contribute new skills and insights to existing projects.
E: You have studied both in England (at the University of Southampton) and in Trinidad and Tobago- have you found there to be any big differences?
K: I applied to study Biomedicine at Southampton after I had been awarded a scholarship from my home government, based on my A-level results. Studying in the UK has definitely changed me as a person and a researcher. It has made me more independent and offered me opportunities I’d never dreamed of before. I created a new life for myself on my own terms, which was a great feeling. In the newly purpose-built Life Sciences building at Southampton, it was fantastic to work in state-of-the-art labs where modern facilities were at your disposal for your research. There, I was able to discover my passion for plant biology. There’s a great research atmosphere where everyone is friendly, supportive and willing to lend advice or help. Southampton shaped me into the researcher I am today.
In Trinidad, the research facilities are not as advanced, but we are making efforts towards this. Just recently, state of the art Life Sciences labs were opened for research, which greatly resemble labs in the UK and US. There’s some very interesting research taking place there at the moment.
Also, the system for postgraduate studies here, is slightly different from that in the UK. Although we have the MPhil/ PhD upgrade system, it takes longer to graduate with a PhD here, but this is due to the administration system and other factors (will explain later). The length of getting a PhD in Trinidad more mimics the US in this regard, where it can take more than 4 years to be awarded. Despite this, there is a very supportive research community here at UWI Life Sciences especially in the postgraduate lab, where postgrads and research assistants (like me) are always on hand to lend advice and consolation to one another when research gets rough.
E: You, like me, didn’t do your undergrad in plant science- but you have ended up switching to plants and loving them! What made you switch from biomedicine to plants?
K: My plant science journey started when it was time to pick dissertation supervisors and research topics in the final year of my Biomed degree. During my degree, I studied pharmacology, neuroscience and biochemistry extensively, which were all very interesting and fun to learn about, but I wasn’t very enthusiastic to research these topics for an entire year. I had no idea what I wanted to research, but I knew I wanted a year-long lab project since a career in research was my main goal. Funnily enough, I was notified of a year-long project but in plant biology. Since I was clueless about what research topic I wanted, I gave a resounding ‘YES!’ despite only having A-level plant biology under my belt! It was a steep learning curve, being in an independent research environment where you have no clue what you’re doing, and also being in a totally different research field! However, this was where the magic happened!
I was working on plant micronutrient homeostasis, focusing on zinc and iron deficiency uptake pathways in Arabidopsis. I fell head over heels for this research since I suffered from iron deficiency anaemia, but was treated by consuming a plant-based diet. I truly appreciated plants and saw their true importance to our survival. I fell in love them after that experience and realised that I wanted to study them for the rest of my life!
E: As a researcher from a developing country, what issues do you sometimes face whilst performing research?
Performing research in the Caribbean has its struggles. Importation of lab merchandise can be a slow process. We don’t have easy, direct access to suppliers like Sigma Aldrich and Thermo Fisher Scientific for example. Therefore, we have to ship a lot of our consumables, reagents and equipment from the US and UK, amongst other countries, which takes some time to reach us. Customs clearance can also take a long time, especially when the product descriptions reads ‘Biohazard! or ‘Flammable!’. This delay manifests in the time we spend doing research, especially PhD research as explained before.
As Trinidad recently hit an economic recession, like many other countries, we’ve seen cuts in fund allocations. Therefore, many labs have had to create alternate methods of purchasing equipment and reagents, sometimes paying out of their own pockets.
Also, since we don’t have access to high-throughput DNA sequencing equipment, or specialized labs on the island or region, we often ship samples abroad for analysis. This requires lots of paperwork, permits and money!
Another issue can be immigration. As scientists, our work can take us all over the world. However, if you’re staying in another country for any period of time, be it 3 weeks or 1 year, we have to apply for visas depending on our nationality and the relationship with the host country. For example, if I want to perform research in the UK for 6 months, I will need to obtain a visa to reside in the country, which takes time and money. I will also need to apply for government clearance to research my topic, which also takes time! All the rules and paperwork can be daunting, but it’s not impossible.
As Caribbean researchers, we still perform quality research and publish in high-impact journals despite the issues we face. It makes us resilient scientists who pursue their passions regardless of the circumstances.
E: You are a first-generation university graduate, and the only scientific researcher in your family- how do you find talking to your family about your work? Do you ever have to help sort out misunderstandings or misconceptions about your work with family members?
My family has always been extremely supportive in my academic journey, but it can sometimes be difficult to explain the world of academia to them. As I’m the first person in my immediate family to go to university, everyone learnt about the tertiary education system through me- from applying to universities, semesters and the modules we take, examinations, and graduation. And that’s just undergraduate!
The confusion starts when postgraduate affairs come into play. For instance, I want to study for a PhD in the UK but they don’t understand the process that I have to go through to get the most appropriate supervisor, the most appropriate project, and the funding restrictions I face due to my nationality. It’s not as easy as finding a taught masters course online and applying, in my opinion. Sometimes I’m asked why I would bother doing a PhD anyway- just do a masters. I have to explain to them that I can’t just stop at a master’s degree. Many of the jobs I want to pursue require a PhD, and I’m also just that curious. I want to push the boundaries of science and knowledge. It’s a learning process for both of us, as they are also coming along on this journey with me.
In terms of explaining my work to them, it can sometimes get complicated. It puts my scicomm skills to the test! It can be difficult breaking down what is a bZIP transcription factor, and how it’s responsible for upregulating ZIP transporter proteins under the zinc deficiency response in plants for example. Also explaining the network of physiological events that occur in plants under combined heat and drought stress can be hard. However, when I get it right, they are really excited about the research. They keep me on my toes when it comes to explaining my research, which is what being a scientist is all about!
E: When you aren’t in the lab what do you get up to?
K: When I’m not in the lab, greenhouse or office working hard in the name of science, I’m probably still in the office, or at home, blogging! I recently discovered my new hobby of science communication. As a plant physiologist, I want to get people excited about plant science and expose them to the awesome research that we do. There also aren’t many plant scientists seen on the wire, so I wanted to do my part to help alleviate that absence. I recently started a new Instagram page @the_green_scientist, dedicated solely to scicomm, and try to blog on my wordpress site ‘TheGreenScientist’ every 2 weeks. If I’m not blogging, I’m in the kitchen trying out vegetarian and vegan recipes, reading, or hanging out with my cats Macy and Socks.
Thank you so much to Kathryn for chatting with me!
You can follow all of her plant science adventures via her social media-