Key to grant has been collaboration
By Abby Werner
As they reach the end of the Roots in Drought grant, the principal investigators have begun to reflect on the unique opportunity of collaboration that the grant presented them with.
“This project has truly involved an integrated and interdisciplinary team,” said Dr. Bob Sharp, the grant’s principal investigator. “It has required everyone’s contributions and expertise to successfully pursue the project’s objectives.”
It is quite uncommon for seven principal investigators on one grant to all come from different disciplines but the same university. Dr. David Braun, the plant geneticist of the group, emphasized how much he has enjoyed working in close proximity with his colleagues.
“I feel this has been one of the most productive scientific opportunities I’ve participated in because we got constant feedback,” Braun said. “We were able to sit down once a week and have meetings lasting three to five hours long that really pushed the science forward and got everyone engaged at a much deeper level than if we were spread out all over the country.”
Seeing other fields of science in action more closely also allowed for greater scientific invention. Dr. Scott Peck, the plant protein specialist, pointed out how a multidisciplinary group pushed everyone to think about the science in a new way.
“Working in a group like this allows you to get a better understanding of how those fields really work,” Peck said. “As those new kernels of information come in, it prompts you to question if we can do things in a different way.”
Beyond just the principal investigators, the graduate students who have worked on the project have come from fields as diverse as computer science to biochemistry. When talking about the grad students she worked with, Dr. Trupti Joshi, the bioinformatic expert, said she loved watching everyone work towards the same goal.
“Watching folks come from plant sciences and computational backgrounds, brainstorming and working together to address the same question is the great part about this project,” Joshi said. “To see everyone work together and be able to deliver towards a common goal in a collaborative environment is amazing.”
Most of the graduate students worked with more than one principal investigator and in several labs. Dr. Felix Fritschi, the crop physiology specialist, stressed that it gave everyone more opportunity.
“For the team as a whole, it was very collaborative for grad students and postdocs,” Fritschi said. “I think it was a really neat experience, especially for them to work with so many different labs and interdisciplinary groups because they were able to have their hands in so much more. It was a tremendous effort.”
Jon Stemmle, the science communication expert, was the last principal investigator to be added on to the grant during the application process. Even though he is not a scientist, he says that the rest of the group still made him feel like an equal part of the team.
“This process has taught me to not be intimidated about being the odd one out in a group like this,” Stemmle said. “I am surrounded by internationally renowned scholars and leaders in their fields. The research they are doing, I can only try my best to understand. But they’ve made it clear that they find my work just as valuable for our final result.”
Since the start of the grant, Dr. Melvin Oliver, a specialist in biochemical genetics and metabolomics, moved into retirement. When looking back on his career, he was happy that this was one of the last groups he worked with. His reflection on the entire team highlights the individual strengths of the group well.
“They’re an amazing bunch of people,” Oliver said. “Bob Sharp is a friend and a colleague. He has such an amazing grasp of physiology, and he’s so very detailed; even at my age, you can learn a lot from him. David Braun brings a lot to the table. His leadership abilities are just great to watch. Scott Peck is so perceptive and so well versed in the scientific method and in how he explains things. Trupti Joshi is a very talented bioinformaticist and Jon Stemmle is such a delight. He brings a whole new perspective to the grant. Then you have Felix Fritschi who’s just such an incredible talent. What he knows about field work and how plants respond to the field in a crop situation is just world-class. We also worked with some phenomenal graduate students and postdocs. So working with all of these talented scientists is a dream.”