February 21, 2019, by Lexi Earl

Meet the Beacon: Dr Sina Fischer

Sina Fischer is a Nottingham Research Fellow in Functional Genomics, and a member of the Future Food Beacon. Sina researches Whole Genome Duplication in Arabidopsis thaliana. Her research seeks to understand the genetics behind traits that appear when the whole genome is duplicated. Sina intends to expand her research into rice and barley while an NRF. Before joining the University of Nottingham, Sina was a Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen, and completed her PhD at the University of Bayreuth in Germany.

In this conversation, Sina talks to Lexi Earl about her research and plans while a member of the Future Food Beacon.

What do you do and how did you end up at the University of Nottingham?

I am researching Whole Genome Duplication in Arabidopsis thaliana. I used to work in Germany at the University of Bayreuth where I studied natural variation in heavy metal tolerance which means I was working with cadmium and manganese, lead, zinc. I was focused on the ionome of the plant and on natural variation. When I was finishing my PhD I was looking into where I could go to next, and whom would be the best person to learn from. David Salt is THE expert on the plant ionome. He defined the term. It describes all the ions that are present in the plant at any given time point. I approached him and together we designed a project that was based on a paper he published in 2013. I was first based at the University of Aberdeen, and then I joined him here in Nottingham.

How would you explain your research to an ordinary person?

For a non-science person this means that I am using the model species, Arabidopsis thaliana. It is a weed that we use because it is fast growing, it is small and it is easy to handle in the lab. It stands in for other species that are more interesting like wheat. I am using this to research what happens to a plant when it duplicates its entire genome. Arabidopsis thaliana usually has two sets of five chromosomes, so ten chromosomes, and the duplicated one would have twenty chromosomes. We saw that these plants have more potassium and they produce more seeds under salt stress. More seeds is the same as fitness and in a way is also the same as yield because for example for wheat, the seed is the thing that we eat. So this is an interesting trait and we want to understand the genetics behind this. Which genes are causing this?

How did you get involved in this research?

I did my Bachelors and then my Masters thesis in genetics. I studied flies and chromosome segregation in flies and how faithful chromosome segregation is maintained in mitosis. That was really interesting and I really enjoyed working with that. It was very focused on a teeny, tiny aspect of cell biology, which was chromosome segregation. Although this process is hugely important in cancer studies and has a lot of impact because of that, if you are studying one tiny protein in this whole process, it is still very far away from the big picture. So I was looking for something that for me, has a larger potential to impact human health and well-being. I joined the Department of Plant Physiology. This work is ultimately about the production of sufficient quantity and quality of food. I think feeding the world is going to be very important. In the end that is why society entertains scientists! It is a luxurious position to be in, working in this field. I think society has to have a reason why they keep us around! There should be some real gain beyond just increasing knowledge. We should keep this in mind and work on solving real problems, even when we are doing basic research. It is all important and will all contribute somewhere down the line but I think more and more modern science is about having a real impact.

How do you think your research will affect ordinary people?

I think it will mostly affect the breeding processes which could affect ordinary people because it will continue to provide sufficient food in a changing environment.

Where do you get your inspiration for your research?

I get it through reading papers and finding ideas from other people’s work. When you go to conferences, that is where you see cool research that you’ve never seen before. I went to ICAR (International Conference on Arabidopsis Research) in Turku, Finland, and there was a person talking about his research in beech. He was studying different cultivars that grow in more and more tundra-like environments. The less woody it gets the more different the species becomes. He was also looking into tetrapoids there, so perhaps there is potential for a collaboration in the future? Just generally hearing the different research that others do is inspiring and makes you think about your own research from different angles and perspectives.

Do you have a greatest career moment so far?

My PhD viva would be it. Stepping out of that room after the defence, being able to tell people I’d done well. That was really great.

How does being based here, with the Future Food Beacon, help you achieve your goals?

There is a really huge network here. I’ve always been involved with very condensed projects but it is very very important, vital, for a researcher to have a collaborative network. Nottingham in general, but especially the Beacon, has enabled me to meet other researchers, talk about their projects, start new projects. The Beacon has really helped, and is helping, me to develop this network.

Do you have any advice for others, young PhDs or students thinking about science?

For young students, thinking about doing a PhD, I would say you have to keep in mind that a PhD is generally self-motivated. In the end, what really drives your project is you deciding to do the experiment today. You have to be structured. You have to be able to do your work without supervision and without constant approval. There might be long time periods, months, where you don’t get the big breakthrough and nobody is there to tell you, yeah this is good or keep doing this. Sometimes for weeks and weeks all you do is measure plants, and it is not really glorious and it is not very interesting. You have no idea if you are going to end up with a good output so you have to be able to work self-sufficiently, from your own motivation for long stretches of time. It’s like a marathon. You cannot see the goal. You don’t know how far away it is. And sometimes someone keeps pushing it further and further back. But you still have to treat it like an endurance race. You have to keep going, keep pushing yourself. So my advice is try and figure out if you are that kind of a person, if you can do this, or if you’d rather have rewards at the end of every day.

What does your typical day look like?

I come in in the morning, I check my emails, see if I’ve missed anything super important during the night. Sometimes I have experiments planned that take a while to set up, then I’d go straight to the lab and prepare those. I’d come back to the office, do some analysis on the computers, prepare figures, do statistics. Then go back to the lab, do more lab work and harvest seeds in-between. It really depends. If you have a specific technique planned for the day, then you might spend the whole day at the microscope. It can be very varied. I sometimes spend weeks doing computer work and analysis, planning for the next strategy.

Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to?

I look forward to the travel because I think I will have great travel opportunities with the Beacon. I’d like to move from working with Arabidopsis thaliana only and go to rice and barley as well. We have great collaborative partners who work on this here in Nottingham but also elsewhere. For rice, we are trying to establish collaborators in China. Once I have more groundwork done on this idea, I will be able to go out to meet with these collaborators and do fieldwork there. For barley we have collaborators in Australia so establishing those connections, and then maybe visiting these places, is something I am looking forward to.

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