The journey of becoming one of a “kind” scientist

Jaishree is a first-generation Ph.D. graduate specializing in Plant Ecological Genomics. Having a Bachelor’s and Master’s from Miranda House, University of Delhi, she has recently finished a Ph.D. from the French National Institute of Agricultural Research (INRAe). She is a science communicator, science policy advisor and an equal rights advocate.

Jaishree is a passionate mentor for young girls and women to help them find a fulfilling STEM career. To help create a positive nurturing environment for researchers to do the science they love, she founded a mental health support initiative for researchers all over the world to help them in their academic journeys. She was also invited to join the pilot mission for advancing gender equity in STEM education at Indian institutes by the Govt. of India. Recently, she was awarded the prestigious Marie Curie Individual Fellowship to pursue her own independent research in the field of Plant Evolutionary Ecology.

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The Selfish Gene, the famous book suggested by my genetics professor as a part of a class exercise, changed my life forever. I found it so intriguing that I ended up researching the author, Dr. Richard Dawkins. Only when I started reading another book titled ‘The Greatest Show on Earth, Evolution,’ authored by him, I realized that this is the area of biology that I want to pursue in the future. This was the beginning of my life-long love affair with the field of ecology and evolutionary Biology.

I was born curious. While playing in my grandmother’s terrace garden, I often looked at a plant, and marveled at its courage and resilience to survive despite adversities including my incessant bugging. The questions I used to ask my grandmother were “Is Treeni alive (my pet plant)?”, “Can Treeni hear when I sing, does she like my singing?”, “Does she know I am her friend?” A plant has so many lessons to teach us! Little did that 5-year-old me know that I would spend the rest of my life deciphering those secret messages.

I belong to a typical middle class Indian joint family and was raised among 14 kids. It is safe to say that our house was always full of life, but the path to education was a less traversed one. There were several advantages to being the youngest girl in the family, but I also had my fair share of relatives advising me what they thought would be best for me. While all my cousins were married between the ages of 24-25, my plans were slightly different. I was rebellious by nature. From purposely flunking in order to leave engineering, a path that was decided for me, to getting admitted in one of the most prestigious science institutions for women in the country, all by myself, I have done it all.

Amidst the excellent faculty members, environment, and exposure at the Miranda House, I developed my interest in understanding the intricacies of the amazing world of plants. This helped me to secure a valedictorian position in B.Sc. (H) Botany in the college. I was overjoyed that I was honored with the prestigious Dr. Angeli Qwatra Award for Excellence in Science from Miranda House along with the Dr. Lakshmi Krishnaswamy Prize, for securing the first position in all the three years of Bachelors in the college and the University Ranker Award. My passion for plant sciences made me pursue M.Sc. in Botany from the same university. I remained amongst the top 5% of the university graduates. During my time at the Delhi University, I also nurtured my interest in pursuing scientific research. I spent all the summers interning at different laboratories, learning various techniques, understanding the scientific methods, preparing myself towards the life of a researcher.

By the end of my Masters, I was sure about pursuing science for the rest of my life. I seek refuge in the truth of science. Everything in science is based on facts and proof, but what is considered proof? For a mathematician, it means a logical demonstration of a conclusion. For a cell biologist, it lies inside a microscope. But for an evolutionary biologist, it is where one wishes to look., Evolution is everywhere, it is within us, around us, and everything in this world is in the process of evolution. As Dawkins pointed out, “Evolutionary biologists are like detectives who reached the crime scene late. But to deduce the exact timings of events and how things took place is what makes this field so exhilarating”. To be able to think, justify and truly appreciate the beauty of nature and how evolution shaped it all, I decided to pursue ecology and evolutionary biology. The path I took to reach there involved my stay at New York City (USA), Ramnagar (India), and Toulouse (France).

Everything in science is based on facts and proof, but what is considered proof?

I was intrigued by a question posed to me at a summer school in Toulouse. Apparently, in an experiment conducted at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, two thale cress plants of a particular collection (botanically speaking Arabidopsis thaliana), when grown alone, grew smaller and sickly. But when they were put in specific combinations, they grew greener, better and happier despite having half the available resources. To comprehend and appreciate the reasons behind this curious phenomenon, I joined the same lab to pursue a PhD aiming to understand plants’ cooperation.

Understanding positive interactions in plants involved a plethora of successful and failed experiments, literature reviews from across multiple disciplines such as ecology, evolution, mathematics, economics, philosophy, and sociology. But more importantly, it required a stubborn belief that if nature shaped other organisms to have the ability to help one another, why not plants?

Three years of my research provided the first-ever evidence that plants can understand if their family members are undergoing stress. They empathize and extend support whenever required. The most striking part is that this ability is encoded in their genome. I think somewhere along with my PhD, I realized that this behavior could also be applied to us at many different levels; as human beings, we also carry lessons of courage, resilience, strength in times of struggles but more importantly, what it means to be an altruist, someone who thinks beyond themselves and about the greater good.

The biggest lesson from my PhD stems from our understanding that the greatest benefit comes from our evolution: The ability to help each other and to be kind to each other. I have been a longtime advocate working toward supporting children’s and women’s education through working with various NGOs. In the last year of my PhD, I founded a mental health support group that helps and supports researchers across the world.

My PhD research opened several avenues and provided an exciting view of the dynamics of plant lives. My journey so far, however, is only a beginning. I concluded my PhD with more questions than answers, questions that kept me awake several nights. In order to continue my journey in the pursuit of happiness (i.e., research), I applied for fellowships and was recently awarded the prestigious Marie Sklodowska Curie Action Individual Fellowship. This fellowship will allow me to continue understanding and appreciating plant lives better by asking some daring questions on plant behavior. Finally, I wish one day I would question that the 5-year-old me had in mind, what all does a plant know?

Edited by: Neha Varshney

#thephdcode #sciencecareerstories #biopatrika #plantlove

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