Dr. Ajayi Olaoluwa Oluwafunto
Dr. Ajayi Olaoluwa Oluwafunto
Dr. Ajayi Olaoluwa Oluwafunto recently completed her Ph.D. degree from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, and works in the Soil Microbiology unit of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Ibadan, Nigeria. Her major research interest is in plant–microbe interactions, particularly in promoting the yield and health of legumes using plant growth-promoting bacteria, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and molecular approaches.
Dr. Blake Meyers is a senior member of IS-MPMI who holds joint appointments at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and the University of Missouri-Columbia. Dr. Meyers' current research emphasizes bioinformatics and plant functional genomics to understand the types of RNA they produce, particularly pollen and plant reproduction, gene regulation and small RNA, and secondary siRNAs in anther development, working in collaboration with scientists in other labs. He has been widely recognized for his major research contributions in the field of disease resistance, small RNAs, and evolutionary biology. He is an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the American Society of Plant Biology (ASPB). He became a reviewing editor at The Plant Cell in 2008 and then a senior editor in 2017. He was also recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences as a member of the 2022 class of inductees.
Dr. Meyers grew up in the college town of Williamsburg, where his father worked as a professor of English. His numerous adventures with nature in fields and outdoors helped him develop an early interest in plants and food production. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago, and afterward, he had the opportunity to work on a team that had access to the most advanced DNA sequencing equipment in the field. He formed a second interest in genomic research during his M.S. and Ph.D. degree studies with Dr. Richard Michelmore at UC Davis, where he was funded by an NSF predoctoral fellowship focused on characterizing the diversity of nucleotide-binding, leucine-rich repeat (NB-LRR or NLR) disease-resistance genes in lettuce.
His first postdoctoral assignment was at Dupont-Pioneer (where he met his wife), and his second assignment was at the Michelmore lab, where his work focused on disease resistance genes. At the Michelmore lab, he manually re-annotated NLR-encoding genes for the then just released Arabidopsis thaliana Col-0 genome, the results of which were published in The Plant Cell (Meyers et al., 2003). His findings showed that the 150 Arabidopsis NLR genes often formed in segmentally duplicated clusters, similar to those in lettuce, and that the automated gene prediction tools misannotated nearly one-third of the NLR genes and still required human inputs.
Dr. Meyers began working as a faculty member at the University of Delaware in 2002, where his lab used multiple sequencing approaches to analyze mRNA and small RNAs. In 2005, with collaborator Pam Green, his lab was the first to perform large-scale, genome-wide analysis of small RNAs, and in 2008, the Green and Meyers labs codeveloped a new and widely adopted method for the genome-wide analysis of cleaved mRNAs. Dr. Meyers' career progressed rapidly at the University of Delaware, and he became the Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences in 2010. In 2012, he was named a Fellow of AAAS.
Dr. Meyers started his laboratory at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in 2016. Research at the Donald Danforth Center is focused on developing tools and resources to help breeders and farmers make agriculture more sustainable, reduce our dependence on water, protect the soil, and provide nutritious crops for communities around the world. The Meyers lab has developed and used a wide variety of bioinformatics tools and pipelines, provided a customized genome browser, and developed apps for analysis of small RNA targets, cleavage, etc., which are available to the public using their tools.
Dr. Meyers' lab group was the first to demonstrate the targeting of transcripts from NLR genes directly by microRNAs and indirectly through the production of “phased," short, interfering RNAs (phasiRNAs) (Zhai et al., 2011). Their work on phasiRNAs has identified roles in posttranscriptional control of numerous pathways, with much of their current work focused on understanding the functions and evolutionary history of two genetically separable pathways that are highly active in premeiotic and meiotic maize anthers (Zhai et al., 2015). Dr. Meyers copublished a seminal 2005 manuscript in Science, “Elucidation of the Small RNA Component of the Transcriptome," that has generated more than 2 million reads, providing the most expansive and detailed data set view of small RNAs in any plant, animal, or fungal species at the time.
I interviewed Dr. Meyers and asked several questions related to his research, lab, and thoughts on various topics important to junior scientists. I have summarized his responses in my own words, but you can read the direct responses from Dr. Meyers here.
Looking back over the years, when he was a younger scientist, like most graduate students, postdocs, and early-career scientists, Dr. Meyers felt the pressure to make progress on his projects, publish, and make a name for himself while balancing his personal life with work and a myriad of other things. During the early stages of his career, he felt that success was an uncertain thing, with moments of success that he was worried would be short-lived. He warns young scientists that there are a lot of decisions to be made along the way—which way to go, which goal to pursue, etc.—stating that success is a product of how you set and measure up to your own goals, plus some hard work to meet those goals and a measure of serendipity. He also tries to spend time doing things outside of work that he enjoys, although at certain times he has put more effort into work than he should have. Putting it in one piece of advice, he says that we should appreciate both failures and successes along the way for the learning moments that they represent. And, appreciate the great people we meet, the moments when good fortune occurs, and the remarkable career that we as scientists can have relative to many other professions.
When setting up his lab, about 10 or 20 years ago, he had to spend a lot of time finding and training people, working directly with them to build up systems for data management. He also had to juggle the many responsibilities of early-career faculty, including teaching and generating data for grant proposals, having to make tough decisions about where to focus his limited time, and building stories that would result in papers and good talks. These experiences have helped, and he can now do most tasks, such as writing and evaluation, much quicker than when he first started out. However, while there are aspects of the work that, over time, get quicker or easier, other tasks, such as mentoring, designing experiments, and thinking creatively, still take the same amount of time. He has found that selective investment of time early in your career can yield time savings later through greater efficiency and experience.
In recent years, Meyers says that he has also been fortunate to be able to attract and retain talented staff, postdocs, and research scientists with whom he can share the work of managing the group. This has allowed continuity and retained institutional memory of how things work, why things might fail, and who to go to when assistance is needed. This is all important to managing one's time, leaving him free to work on other things, as he can depend more on many people, from administrative assistants to academic staff. Meyers says that it is not him per se, but “all of us working as a team, and when it is a well-oiled operation, we are that much better," which is why they are a high-achieving and successful group. He also says they are a cohesive, collaborative group that works well together, which is important to success. He notes that a good personality is a winning trait, arguably even more so than technical skills among group members, and that when conflicts and complications occur within a group, or communication is poor, it slows things down.
Since he has a dependable team, Meyers' personal work revolves around his email inbox, as this is where he diligently manages his time. The emails in his inbox represent his “to do" list—as soon as he finishes a task, he files or deletes the email. Over the last couple of years, he has tried to keep his inbox to around 20 emails, at least as a regular weekly low point. He even hit the legendary “inbox zero" over the last winter holiday, which was the first time in over a decade. Jokingly, he commented that he would file the email for this interview, removing it from his to-do list as taken care of after the interview.
As an accomplished writer, he points out that experience is important for efficiently writing good publications and successful grant proposals. He provides a few tips that he also reminds his lab members about:
- Write for a reader who does not know your work at all but has the ability to learn it quickly.
- Pay close attention to the clarity of your text, avoiding hasty writing that comes off as sloppy.
- Use good transitions, continuity, and logical flow by ensuring one sentence follows from the former and into the next.
- Pay attention to the conclusions of paragraphs and sections to end on your strongest point made in that block of text; don't simply let the text fizzle out with a minor or tangential point.
- Work with a mentor or instructor to critique your writing, or even read a few books on the topic, as there are many.
Meyers advises that when preparing a good paper there is a lot to think about at the submission/evaluation stage of publishing and that the inputs by reviewers should be greatly appreciated, as they help to improve your work. He also points out that there is a need to develop a thick skin, as you occasionally get reviewers who are mean, nitpicky, or just do not share your enthusiasm for the topic, and at such times, even if you are feeling irritated by a reviewer or editor, you should make sure you take an extra day or so to get over the emotions and purge your responses of adjectives or opinions—focusing on the science and keeping a neutral tone. It is also important to do as much extra work to address the comments as possible, as reviewers and editors appreciate it when you fix a concern and do not argue everything.
He points out that writing grant proposals is different in many ways from writing papers and requires good ideas along with preliminary data, which can sometimes take months (or years) to generate. In other words, you need to play the long game, building a story over time with the anticipation that you will be able to work it in as preliminary data for a proposal. That is what start-up funds are for, and even when you have a grant, you need to be thinking about the dual needs of addressing the objectives of the current funding while planning for the next round. All this has to be done while ensuring that your team has interesting projects that are going to yield publications. When asked this question, he said, “Now that you are asking me to think about it, it is kind of stressing me out, but in real life, it seems to work out but can take a lot of planning."
There are so many interesting areas within plant biology in which breakthroughs are needed and are likely to come. On the biological side, his interests continue to focus on small RNAs—how are they made, how they function, where they go, how different organisms exploit them for signaling, etc. For the last decade, his lab group has been working with collaborators, mainly the lab of
Virginia Walbot at Stanford University, to determine why many flowering plants accumulate extraordinarily high levels of several classes of small RNAs in their anthers during pollen development. Understanding why this occurs and what those small RNAs are doing would be a major breakthrough. Being able to answer those questions is likely to require technical breakthroughs, including single-cell analysis of small RNAs and spatial transcriptomics of small RNAs, so these are also major (technical) breakthroughs to look forward to, whether from his lab or someone else's.
In the context of IS-MPMI, Meyers would also say that another major breakthrough would be to fully understand the small RNAs that mediate communication between plant hosts and their pathogens and symbiotic microbes. He states that only in recent years have we begun to characterize these RNAs, and there are many things yet to learn about the mechanism of movement, perception, and response, which will require several major breakthroughs, by many people in the field, perhaps with contributions by his group—although not his primary area of work, it is an exciting field in which he will be pleased to be involved.