Most young scientists will not study plant science. So why did I?

A few years ago when I was getting a haircut, the barbers and other customers mocked and laughed at me hysterically. At the time I was studying protein transport systems in moss. The barbers couldn’t get past the fact that I studied moss to make a living. I didn’t even mention to them that my PhD was on a weed plant called Arabidopsis thaliana.

My example certainly isn’t a one-off, unique situation. Scientists across all disciplines can recall similar experiences. But I feel that researchers studying fundamental plant sciences, especially go through situations frequently.

People always asked me why I wasn’t studying useful topics like cancers, dementia or antibiotic resistance? My answer to this is simple. Plant science can help feed the world. 1 in 9 people worldwide are hungry due to lack of food, and millions die of hunger every year. It’s not that we aren’t producing enough right now – we are wasting a lot of food. But plant science can also help in reducing food waste. Plants are also essential to protect our environment and preserve ecosystems. They are crucial in our fight against climate change and rising global temperatures. In short, without plants, we would all die and so would all animals. These are some of the many great reasons to study plants.

The second question was usually: “so why are you studying moss? You should research in rice or wheat instead…” At this point, I usually bring up the best conversation killer that I know bar none: “basic plant science is important because…” zzzzzzz (the person switches off)! Overall, I do believe that the public sees value in plant research but plant science still struggles to recruit enough young students that other disciplines attract.

Plant science isn’t a top choice

At an outreach event in a school, I was shocked to learn that none of the young 14-15-year-olds could identify the rice plant. This perhaps shows the level of interest and awareness of plants. And it’s very worrying. If students aren’t aware of plants, then they will naturally have reservations in taking up the subject to study. I needed no incentives to study plants. My love for plant sciences began during my undergraduate project. I knew then that if I were to do further research, I would study plants and nothing else. But things could’ve been vastly different today.

Before doing my final year undergraduate project, I was on the verge of quitting science for good. The study on plant defence wasn’t my top pick; I got it by default. In fact, this project was my 14th choice out of 15 options. I got the project because it was on a plant model, and not many students wanted it – so there was almost no competition for the project. Most top students got one of their top choices, usually on areas of neuroscience or cancer biology. Because I was one of the worst performing students in my year, I didn’t get my first 13 options (my top choices were also in cancers, neuroscience, etc.). In hindsight, I am very much thankful that I wasn’t picked to do those other non-plant projects because that final year plant sciences project changed my life for better.

Similar to the public view, young students also dismiss plant science as inferior to fundamental studies of other topics. There aren’t many plant science modules in undergraduate biology degrees. When it comes to incentivising students to uptake plant studies, universities could and should do more. An obvious way to do this would be to teach more about plants in biology degrees.

School plant science initiatives and events can also encourage students to take up plant sciences for further studies. The Rocket Science campaign by the Royal Horticultural Society is a great example. This initiative saw six-hundred thousand children become space biologists. Pupils sowed and grew rocket seeds that spent six months on board the International Space Station. These initiatives generate big interest in plant sciences amongst young pupils. The problem is that the enthusiasm fizzles out fast because exciting initiatives like this are far and few. And indeed syllabus content on plant science topics is relatively low in biology courses for over-16s.

It’s not just at universities, plant science communications also can’t compete with many biomedical research communications, especially those supported by research charities. Of course, the non-profit funders aren’t to blame for the low approval rating of plant science. These charities support excellent research and house active and sometimes aggressive communication teams. The charities comms teams often produce compelling and engaging communication materials to raise awareness of their respective research areas.

In contrast, there aren’t many plant science charities. And the research outcomes of plant sciences is a much harder story to sell when they are competing against other medical findings. A combination of these factors sends plant science down the pecking order. Low awareness, few study options and scientific snobbery are perhaps the reasons why young students don’t appreciate interesting plant science topics more than they do now.

Scientists and committees disregard plant science

The public and students aren’t exposed to plant sciences as much as other disciplines, so I begrudgingly forgive them for not recognising the contribution of plant research to advance our knowledge. What I find incredibly disappointing is the fact that many scientists in various disciplines also look down on plant sciences. Historically, scientists and prestigious prize committees have failed to acknowledge the importance of several breakthroughs in plants until these specific technologies are applied to other model organisms. Disregarding plant research is detrimental to plant science. A lack of recognition and publicity is one of the reasons prospective young scientists overlook plant science. It also means that plant scientists don’t get credit for their discoveries simply because the study was in plants.

There is a perception amongst scientists that, while plant science is essential for agriculture, it doesn’t contribute to further our scientific knowledge that can transcend across scientific disciplines and revolutionise science. I completely disagree, because scientists have made numerous discoveries studying fundamental plant science that has made a significant difference across many areas pushing science to uncharted territories.

Studies using plant models have paved the way for new research fields across several scientific disciplines. Fundamental discoveries in plants have revolutionised every single branch of biological research. And I’m aiming to write a series of blog posts to highlight a few significant findings from research in plants.  So stay tuned, there is more to come…

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