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The next generation: Eirini Kaiserli

It was perhaps inevitable that Eirini Kaiserli would follow an audacious path in life. Born and raised on the Greek island Kos—which reportedly had been a stop for the mythical hero Heracles—she too sought adventure at an early age. Initially, that pluck manifested itself in activities such as horseback riding, but at age 17, it took her away from Greece altogether and eventually led her to the world's leading plant biology program at the Salk Institute.


Captivated by biology in high school, Kaiserli was determined to pursue a career in research. Although Kos is renowned as the birthplace of Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician credited as the first person to believe that diseases had natural causes rather than stemming from acts of the gods or other superstitions, it boasts a population of only 30,000, and opportunities for a research career were limited, to say the least. But her intrepid spirit prevailed, and she left home to attend the University of Glasgow.

"I've always been determined, and I knew at a young age I would have to take the road less traveled to achieve my goals," she says.

While an undergraduate in Glasgow, she was accepted into a one-year study-abroad program at Stanford University's Carnegie Institution for Science in the plant biology department. It was there that she developed an affinity for plant photobiology and learned about Joanne Chory's work at the Salk Institute.

"I admired her work as a person and a scientist from a distance," she explains. "As a woman in science, it is empowering to see someone like Joanne pave the way for me."

Returning to Scotland and the University of Glasgow for her doctorate, Kaiserli focused on the characterization of UVR8, a novel signaling component that regulates UV protection in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. She discovered that UVR8 translocates into the nucleus in response to UV-B light in order to orchestrate the expression of a range of growth promoting and photo-protective genes. Thanks to her discovery, scientists now have a better understanding of how plants sense and protect themselves against UV-B irradiation by producing their own sunscreen and it has recently been shown that UVR8 is actually the long sought-after UV-B receptor in plants.

After earning her Ph.D., Kaiserli accepted a postdoctoral position in Chory's laboratory, which seeks to discover the molecular triggers that determine whether a plant matures into a spindly or robust specimen, ultimately improving the way we grow food. Kaiserli's work there currently involves the study of molecular and cell biology approaches in order to understand how plants perceive and respond to light.

"The aim of my research is to better understand the function of a novel growth-promoting protein known as TZP, in response to light," she explains. "We want to understand how this protein converges blue light, hormone signaling and circadian rhythms."

Kaiserli is acutely aware of the fact that her research at Salk has the potential to make a positive impact on human life globally, particularly in terms of alleviating hunger, and she credits her success to her adventurous spirit.

"With research, you have to take risks, and my life mirrors my approach in the lab," she says. "I believe in doing things that are out of your comfort zone. You learn, grow and sometimes reach significant discoveries."