, University of California, was performed by one of the 2016 IS-MPMI student travel awardees,
, North Dakota State University.
Pamela C. Ronald
University of California
North Dakota State University
Gazala Ameen (GA): Dr. Ronald, your work and efforts to connect lab to land is a role model for many budding scientists. What is the inspiration and driving force behind you to be a wonderful scientist and strong advocate for plant science?
Pamela Ronald (PR): I have always been interested in food, farming, and the wilderness. My dad built a 500-ft2 cabin, about 60 years ago before I was born in Tahoe. I spend a lot of time as a kid backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountains identifying flowers and trees. I loved to walk for days and camp out under the stars. My mother was an avid gardener and a really good cook. So, I was always interested in food and farming.
GA: In your opinion, how do you think your work is filling the knowledge gap and leading the progression of scientific community?
PR: Most scientists hope that some of the work we do will be useful to other scientists and, if we are lucky, directly applicable to farmers in our lifetime. I feel that I have been very fortunate to have a really good lab team and wonderful collaborators and we have done some exciting work. I hope that many of the scientists I have mentored will continue with the work. I believe that any scientific advance, no matter how small, can help make the world a better place.
GA: How do you think people can become more educated about GM crops and their role in feeding our growing world population, especially those who are deprived of the basic human right of food? How can we educate the general public about it?
PR: Well, the issue is less about genetics and more about agriculture. Very few people in the United States are farmers and very few people even hear from farmers. I am often invited to join panel discussion about food and farming. Typically, there is not a single farmer on the panel. So, I think that if we could engage farmers in the conversations and discussions with consumers, it will really help a lot. For example, I think if you are a plant biologist, you understand what a seed is and that you need a seed to make a plant and that seeds have genes that encode traits that farmers need and consumers need. But that’s not so obvious to a lot of people who are not plant biologists or farmers. I believe we need to start plant biology education early—we need to help high school teachers teach their students about genetics and breeding. If there is a basic knowledge about plant breeding and the challenges faced by farmers, it will be easier for the consumers to understand that there are many different methods of genetic alterations and that we need to be thinking not about the type of genetics but how can we advance to sustainable agriculture. How can we help farmers produce enough food to feed themselves and their family and how can we help farmers farm more ecologically? How can we help reduce inputs and allow farmers to use less land and less water? Of course, it is not all about plant genetics, farmers need much more than seeds. Farmers need to use ecologically based farming practices, they need to have access to water and land, and there needs to be good government policies. It’s an interrelated system. Once we engage in dialog about sustainable agriculture, it really helps consumers think about plant genetics. Let me give you a specific example. I am opposed to the term “GMO” because it means something different to each person. And of course, everything we eat has been genetically altered in some manner. So, what I would like to see is more discussions specific to the agricultural challenge. For instance, Papaya ringspot virus infects papaya in Hawaii, which devastates the orchard and is a huge economic hardship to growers. What approaches can help farmers keep growing their crops? In this case, genetically engineered papaya to create immune papaya has worked well for more than 10 years.
GA: What are your feelings toward the future of basic scientific research, especially in the current scenario of limited research funding?
PR: There are always ups and downs. I think that most politicians will say that they support science and that they recognize that scientific research is critical for the American economy and the global economy (even if their actions don’t always reflect that). So, I am encouraged that we do have that kind of political support, but of course, it needs to get translated into actions and support to young scientists and funding to help do the research. As scientists, we need to keep advocating for good science and engaging about science with as many nonscientists as we can. We need to try to understand the kind of issues that they are wondering about and do our best to explain why science is important.
GA: As women remain underrepresented in STEM, how can we take charge to educate more young women, get them involved in STEM, and help them to remain motivated?
PR: For women in particular?
PR: For all of us, men and women alike, science is challenging. It is hard and you have many failures. It’s important to remember that failures are a normal part of science and help and support each other during hard times. Choose to work with people that you enjoy and trust. Support them as they support you. Be generous and kind. Share your data before publication. I don’t want to generalize too much, but it may be that there are more women than men who lack confidence in their skills and suffer from imposter syndrome. Of course, I know men who feel that way too, but it does seem to be more common in women. I hope that, once we reach a point where there are similar numbers of men and women in STEM fields, many of the challenges women now face will diminish (lack of respect, etc.) (For a great twitter story on this see: https://twitter.com/schneidremarks/status/839910253680553988?lang=en). For both men and women, having children is challenging because you love them and you love science and you want to do the best for both. But this is the case for most jobs. The good thing about science is that there is flexibility and understanding. This allows scientists who are parents to arrange their schedule so that family life will work well.