Halle an Saale, December 1997
Twenty-five years ago, I was invited to the IPB Halle (Leibniz-Institut für Pflanzenbiochemie) by Thorsten Nürnberger and Dierk Scheel. That visit was memorable, perhaps because it was fascinating to visit an Eastern German city that was about to undergo a massive transformation after reunification, and because the visit took place in December, which meant I could experience the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) complete with a snow blizzard. The most memorable aspect, however, was Thorsten and Dierk’s kindness and hospitality. To me, they represented the best of the best in the field of biochemistry of plant immunity, a topic that was heavily dominated by geneticists. As I was about to start my own lab at Ohio State, it was inspiring to learn about their biochemical approach and how much it could complement classical genetics. A few years later, my PhD student, Miaoying Tian — now a Professor at University of Hawaii — identified our first plant targets of pathogen effectors, subtilisin and papain-like proteases, using a biochemical approach.
Halle an Saale, May 2023
This week, I’m back in Halle. This trip, more than 25 years after my first visit, was under solemn circumstances. We gathered to commemorate Dierk Scheel, who had sadly passed away about a year prior. The IPB organized the 8th Leibnitz Plant Biochemistry Symposium in memory of Dierk. The theme was Plants as Masters of Resilience and included outstanding scientific talks. The event was also peppered with stories about Dierk’s kindness, generosity, in addition to his scientific contributions. Is there a better way to be remembered?
The quest for an enigmatic receptor
In the 1990s, Thorsten and Dierk were involved in a significant research project on an enigmatic plant receptor. They demonstrated that this receptor binds a 13-amino acid peptide called Pep13, which originates from the transglutaminase protein of the plant pathogenic microbe Phytophthora. The binding exhibits high affinity and specificity to this short sequence, and this played a crucial role in the team’s conceptual understanding that plants have evolved specific receptors to distinguish between self and non-self, a model that has since been widely supported and validated.
After those glorious days, the Pep13 receptor project slowed down, primarily due to difficulties in isolating the receptor from non-model plants. However, we received exciting news about this topic during Thorsten’s presentation at the symposium. It’s not my story to share in detail, but stay tuned and you will hear more about this topic soon.
What struck me about this news is how the early work from 30 years ago has stood the test of time. Despite the challenges faced on the road to discovering the receptor, the intricate biochemistry of the 1990s has been validated. The Pep13 receptor is not just a concept; it is a tangible reality. Dierk Scheel’s black & white signature model, as Martin Parniske referred to it, lives on after all these years. Isn’t that the essence of science — to uncover the truths of the natural world? To have our discoveries and models act as a springboard for further exploration and discoveries?
Your job is to produce science that stands the test of time
I stayed in Halle an extra day after the Symposium at the kind invitation of Sascha Laubinger and Debora Gasperini who organized a networking meeting for Early Career Researchers (ECRs). The idea was to bring together ECRs from different institutions and areas of plant biology to network, exchange ideas, and learn from each other.
Sascha and Debora tasked me with offering career tips to the ECRs. Where should I begin? There are too many topics to cover. To structure my presentation, I decided to start by emphasizing the significance of identifying and addressing our own weaknesses, a topic which I previously discussed in the blog post titled “Even in a great orchestra, you will only hear the bad player.” As I mentioned earlier, possessing a well-rounded skill set is crucial for success as an academic scientist. Overachievers in just one area will face challenges in academia.
But this topic quickly transitioned into a discussion about our approach to science and the essence of being a scientist. The key takeaway here is to draw inspiration from the work of Thorsten and Dierk and strive to produce scientific contributions that withstand the test of time. That is impactful science. It’s not more complicated than that.
As one of the attendees @guearaguirang tweeted, the take home message is: your job is to do solid science that stands the test of time.
After the presentation, there was a dynamic and engaging discussion among the attendees, who asked insightful questions and shared their perspectives and experiences related to the topic. The Q&A session sparked an immensely inspiring discussion on numerous topics that are of great concern to ECRs. Here is a concise breakdown of the highlights from the session, along with links to suggested reading material to delve deeper into these subjects.
Prioritize conducting science that stands the test of time over an obsession with glam-mag / CNS papers.
To become resilient, build a support network of people around you that includes your mentors, your colleagues and your mentees.
To create incentives for fixing the record, we consider the failure to correct errors as a form of scientific misconduct.
This post was written with assistance from ChatGPT. I’m grateful to all the people listed in the articles, including the organizers and participants of the ECR workshop for inspiring the article.
This article is available on a CC-BY license via Zenodo. Cite as: Kamoun, S. (2023) Your goal is to produce science that stands the test of time. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7925704