What’s it like to start up a research lab on cereals?

By James Higgins

In October 2013 I was appointed Lecturer in Plant Molecular biology at the University of Leicester as part of a team to deliver a degree course based on animal and plant development, as well as explore my own interests including investigating factors controlling meiotic crossovers and adaptation to whole genome duplication in model plants and cereals. In light of the discovery of Richard III’s body buried beneath a car park and Leicester City football club gaining promotion into the premier league after 10 years, I have found a real buzz about the city.

In this blog I will discuss some of the challenges and highlights I have encountered whilst starting up a new lab and how this is different to carrying out a post-doc or PhD. The most obvious benefit of becoming a principal investigator (PI) is job security and the opportunity to explore your own scientific interests. What is not obvious beforehand is what a unique and varied job it generally is. As a PhD student or post-doc your project has a clear structure, aim and time-line. As a PI, you may be doing some teaching in the morning, then reviewing a paper or have a meeting about GM safety in the afternoon. You go from focusing on a small number of projects that can be seen through to the end, to a large number of things that you dedicate less time to. The key is to have a long term strategy as well short term goals, and enjoy the variety.

Dr James Higgins examining meiotic nuclei using a Nikon Epifluorescence microscope at the University of Leicester

The most difficult aspect of becoming a new PI is getting the lab experiments successfully up and running. The easiest way to explain it is in terms of a musical band or orchestra. Having left a successful band you know how to play all the instruments and can hear if the notes are in tune. However, in the new situation you start off with no instruments or band members. You have to get together what you can but a lot of the instruments are out of tune. As there is a limited budget you can't buy a fancy tuner so rely on your hearing, which can take time. It also takes time to find band members who then have to be trained before a recognizable tune can be played. At the University of Leicester I am still a one man band, but have had excellent support with two vital instruments. Of course, this only the beginning and I expect new members to join.

At this tentative stage it is helpful to have some continuity with previous work and collaborative projects. I've been very lucky with mine and have on-going projects with Chris Franklin (Birmingham), Levi Yant and Kirsten Bomblies (Harvard), Luke Ramsay (James Hutton) and intend to investigate new areas with Keith Edwards (Bristol), and Cristobal Uauy (John Innes) with support from Ed Byrne (KWS). It is not possible to be an expert in all areas so complimentary collaborations provide a sum that is greater than all of the parts.

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Immunolocalisation of the axial element protein ASY1 (red) and synaptonemal complex transverse filament protein ZYP1 (green), counterstained with DAPI (blue) on a wheat ‘Apogee’ meiotic prophase nucleus

I would to thank the University of Leicester for giving me the opportunity to pursue a science career and intend to repay their trust by carrying out internationally recognized science in cereals and model crops as well as delivering high quality teaching. I also aim to promote plant sciences, especially in regards to how research on cereals can make a difference to life in the 21st Century.

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