Friday, May 29, 2009

How gardening helps scientists

(Sorry for a long absence. Numerous reasons have kept me away from the blog, but now it should be back to weekly essays on Balancing life).

Arabidopsis thaliana is a distinctively unremarkable plant. It is small, scraggy, has few leaves and very modest flowers. It has no dietary value, nor does it look particularly pretty on a bouquet. It is possible that even goats don’t care much for it.

Yet the plant has served mankind over the past few dozen years like no other. It is the chosen plant genetic model for hundreds of researchers around the world, who take advantage of its short lifespan, relatively easy growth, adaptability and small size and do wonderful research. It also has one of the smallest genomes any plant has, and research from Arabidopsis has not only revealed much of the working mechanisms in plants (of profound use in agriculture and whatnot) but also in general biology. Many findings from Arabidopsis has applied to all living cells, from bacteria to mammals.

But when I say “model plant organism of choice”, I don’t mean it is as easy to do experiments with Arabidopsis as it is say with fruit flies or yeast or bacteria. It is much harder, and graduate students pursuing their PhD with Arabidopsis on average have to work 6-7 years before they’ve done enough to get that PhD.

So I was stunned when a Chinese colleague of mine told me about his friend and old university mate. His friend had worked with Arabidopsis for his PhD, and had produced a prodigious amount of work, finishing his PhD in a mere three years. This was a record almost unheard off in the Arabidopsis community. My friend was just as surprised when his friend told him this story. So he asked his friend what the secret to his success was.

His friend grinned and said “Most researchers are pretty smart and know a lot about biochemistry or genetics or development, but they don’t know plants. I’m smart and I know plants. I’m from a family of peasant farmers, and my family used to grow vegetables back in China. I know more about growing and caring for plants than the rest of my lab put together. They spend their time learning how to grow the plants, and I spent all my time just designing and doing experiments.”

Now you tell me there isn’t value in rustic wisdom.


That said, there’s something more in this story. I’ve met lots of Chinese researchers who have come from very humble backgrounds. Many of them grew up in rural areas, and were from families of farmers. But they all got to go to school, and those who shone academically got scholarships to study in top colleges in Beijing or Shanghai or other cities. While there is much that I don’t like about China (particularly politically), I think they’ve done very well in educating a massive population. India and China had similar class conscious, massively illiterate populations some 50 years ago, and China has done far better in educating its people, and giving more chances to the “underprivileged”. Many of my Indian friends here in the US are researchers. But they all come from urban, middle class, “white collar” backgrounds. I don’t know a peasant yet who has done a PhD in an elite institution, or pursued a career in research. Some food for thought, this.