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One on One with... Joanne Chory

A self-described "late bloomer," Joanne Chory has become one of the world's leading plant biologists, driven by the prospect of creating a better world for her family and children around the globe. Chory, professor and director of the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, has led the field of plant biology for more than 20 years, making major discoveries in how plants grow and develop. This past summer, she added more hardware to her collection of awards after being elected a foreign member of the Royal Society in London—the world's oldest scientific academy in continuous existence.

Why should the world care about plant biology?

Plants are the foundation for all human life on earth, providing food, fiber, drugs, building materials and even the oxygen we breathe. Yet remarkably little is known about the mechanisms of how plants grow and develop and adapt to diverse environments.

Joanne Chory enjoying some family time at her home with husband, Dr. Stephen Worland and children, Katie and Joe.

How did you first become interested in plant biology?

I was attracted to the field of plant biology in 1984. Very little was known about plants, but three papers had just been published about how to generate stably transformed plants. Also, Barbara McClintock had just won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her groundbreaking work on maize transposons (jumping genes). As such, it was a field ready for young people like me to apply some of the new tools of molecular biology. I also feel it's very important to better understand how plants grow. This has the potential to better feed the human population. It is currently estimated that over 800 million people suffer from chronic malnutrition. About 7 million children a year under the age of five die from not getting enough calories. It is the single largest reason that children die.

Did you always know that being a plant biology scientist was the direction you wanted to take?

The short answer is no. While I was always good at math and science, I did not decide to major in biology until after my first year in college. I was inspired by my microbiology professor my junior year in college and got my Ph.D. in bacteriology. It wasn't until I looked for a postdoc that I decided to work on plants. I guess you'd call me a late bloomer (pun intended).

Were your parents or family members into science?

Neither of my parents were scientists. Of their five children, we are one mechanical engineer, one electrical engineer, one computer software specialist and one mathematician turned aerospace engineer, and then there's me—the molecular biologist. My siblings think my science should be more quantitative, and they can't understand why I have forgotten calculus.

Aside from plant biology and your research, what are you most passionate about in life?

Having two children and juggling two demanding jobs leaves us little time for other passions. But if I had to pick one thing, I have passion for providing a loving environment to my family, both my own family and our extended families.

What would people be most surprised to know about you?

I like to embarrass my children by dancing wildly to 1970s music. The Who's album Who's Next is especially good for this.

If you had a month off, where everything worrying about not getting stuff done or losing time, what would you do with your time?

I'm inclined to say that I would read James Joyce's, Ulysses, as well as some of the other great works of fiction that I missed. But it is possible that I would just watch every episode of Mad Men or Desperate Housewives with my daughter. A month of just goofing off at home and bonding with my family would be really special.

Thomson Reuters recently ranked the Salk Institute's plant biology program number one in the world. What does this distinction say about the scientists and the work being done here?

We were thrilled to see this statistic. I think what it says is self-evident: that we have uncovered basic pathways and fundamental knowledge about plants that is useful to the plant community and to the larger life science community as well. It is remarkable to think we've done this with just a handful of faculty over the years, including the current four "J's": Joe Ecker, Joe Noel, Jeff Long and myself (Joanne).

This year, you were elected a foreign member of the Royal Society in London. It is one of many honors you have earned in your career. Is there one particular award that has special meaning to you?

The best I could do was narrow this down to three, each for a different reason: One, I was elected to the National Academy of Sciences within a few months of being promoted to full professor. This was a vote of confidence from my own peers at a young age. It meant a lot to me. Two, in 2009, I became the first recipient of the Howard H. and Maryam R. Newman Chair in Plant Biology. This was special for two reasons: First, I was the first woman at Salk recognized by being given a chair. Second, I was thrilled that the Newmans and the Jacobses recognized the positive impact that plant research has had on the quality of human life. And the third "honor" was bestowed upon me by my then ten-year-old daughter, Katie. It was in response to something that a former president of Harvard said when he was trying to be provocative about why there were so few women in science. One idea he threw out there was that there were innate differences in aptitude between men and women. When I told my daughter this anecdote over breakfast, she innocently looked up at me and said, "Well, he must have never met you, Mom."

What inspires you to continue your research?

I remain interested in the following two questions: How does the chemical machinery of plants respond to light in order to make the plant grow, flower and produce seeds and fruit? And can we use this knowledge to increase crop yields? I am inspired by the simplicity of these questions and our relative ignorance of the answers. Plant biology/agriculture is an area where a single researcher can make a difference!

How will plant biology help feed the world over the next several decades?

Basic studies of plants will explain the most fundamental processes of plants: how they grow and develop, how they regulate and optimize the photosynthetic process and how they respond to stress. We will be able to correlate phenotype with genotype, and sequencing will explain many aspects of adaptation to different environments. Breeders will use this knowledge to manipulate crops, and this will increase yield, stress tolerance and sustainability.

What will be some of the biggest challenges we will face as we try to feed the world?

We need to do all the things I just mentioned now and with almost no funding (less than 2 percent of total research dollars in life and biomedical sciences). We are expecting 9 billion people by 2050, but we haven't been thinking about what kind of world we are leaving for our children and grandchildren.