August 2017 Spotlight: Johan Jaenisch
CLEAR Member? 2015-2016
What do you do? I look at how a plant leaf reacts to a fungal infection, and how the fungus tricks the affected cells to help produce energy-rich fats to fuel fungal reproduction.
Which college did you attend? McGill University
What was your favorite class ever and why? My favorite class was fisheries and wildlife management biology at McGill, where we spent a few weeks spread across a semester outside of the lecture hall in the field (meaning I didn’t have to do homework for my other classes!). I learned about the management of fisheries in eastern Canada (tagging salmon, looking at long-term shellfish population trends in Fundy Bay) and tromped through the woods performing population checks on marten, deer, and beaver. It was for me the application of most of what I had learned during my undergraduate time in environmental sciences, using my plant identification and systems thinking from all my previous coursework.
When did you decide to pursue the current field you are in? Along my academic path, I’ve studied ecologies at the landscape and leaf level, watched the careful choreography of development in seed development, and now I am looking at the origin of energy storage molecules during a plant-microbe interaction. Looking back, choosing the next step has always been to gain a better understanding of the biology around me. The move from ecology to plant biology came from finding the resolution of landscape management too coarse – I needed a better understanding of what processes were happening within individual components (the organisms, rivers, atmosphere, soil) to contribute to understanding how their responses to stimuli shape system dynamics and affect the interactions I had learned about. But then once I thought I understood what a plant was doing, I wanted to know what was controlling the cellular processes, and I kept zooming in closer and closer to the underlying chemistry.
How many labs have you worked in? What kinds of labs were they? I’ve worked in 5 labs in all different capacities. My first I was a summer volunteer counting zebra fish eggs with a graduate student. I interned at a company (my only industry experience!) in the summers during my undergrad. The last three were all academic institutions, where I was a masters student (in Switzerland), a technician (in Boston), and now finally a PhD candidate at Berkeley.
What did you do between undergrad and grad school? I had exactly 10 days between the end of my undergrad and my masters program, where I spent the entire time packing everything up to move from Montreal to Zurich. But I wouldn’t recommend that for anyone. After finishing my masters I took 9 months off from the lab, looking for a job in eastern Canada, but never found anything better than being a kayak tour guide. So eventually science pulled me back in and I spent 2 years working as a technician before starting my PhD at Berkeley.
What does your lab bench look like right now? My bench is a jumbled skyline of bottles on one side, filled with various solutions that I used to extract DNA from plants I grew. The DNA now sits in an ice bucket that takes center stage, under the watchful eye of my pipettes that hang above, and in front of my trusty workhorse vortexer – my favorite piece of equipment that mixes the liquids in my tubes with precision and a comforting hum, all while massaging my arm as it shakes. As I move closer to my desk, I come across my system of organizing seeds in little packets from the different plants I’ve grown during my time in the lab – most of which were grown on plants that went through the same DNA extraction I just performed to find out which plants carry the correct mutations. These will stay in the lab long after I’m gone, so I keep them neatly organized and on moisture-absorbing pellets, but this is rare oasis of order in this landscape. Here is also my lab pet – a tube with a spindly Nitella water plant growing, known for its easily visible cytoplasmic streaming within the stem – that has survived almost 3 years of graduate school stresses with me. Then, from the edge of the work surface, it plunges down to my computer desk. This is where I fill in my lab book, look up protocols, and design my experiments. It is covered in unfiled papers and knick-knacks from vendors and friends.
Describe your favorite science accident: I always enjoy Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin on accident after letting plates overgrow and noticing bacterial death near fungal growths. Not just because it led to the development of antibiotics that revolutionized medicine, but also because its discovery was a snapshot of an ecology that is present everywhere – microbes, plants, and animals all have examples of turning to chemical warfare to improve their fitness. Today we are still finding unique molecules made in nature that have unknown effects and unbelievable structures!
If you could study anything in any location other than where you are now, what would it be and where? I would love to have the endurance to visit remote locations and study the behaviors of poorly-studied species – what are their social structures like? What do they eat? How close are their numbers to the carrying capacity of the environment they live in?
How do you prefer to spend your time outside of the lab? In the lab I need to wear long pants and closed-toe shoes every day for safety, so I love it when I get the chance to enjoy the outside in shorts or sandals. This can be anything from hiking in Yosemite to lounging in the park reading in the sun!