January 2018 Spotlight: Tim Jeffers
CLEAR member? 2016-present
What do you do? I study how nutrients regulate photosynthesis in algae.
Favorite science factoid? When we eat vitamin A-rich plants, we are taking the chemicals that plants use to harvest light and converting them to molecules the cells in our eyes use to respond to light, allowing us to see. There are so many cool factoids like that about plants that reveal the interdependence of so many life processes on earth.
Did you imagine you’d be where you are today back in high school? Not really. Biology was one of my favorite classes in high school, but since my classroom experiments rarely worked, I thought I’d be lousy in a laboratory. At the same time, I was also really interested in pursuing math, creative writing, or art as careers. Once I was working in a lab during undergrad, though, I found that science involved a lot creativity and planning as fulfilling as making art. Plus, once you have enough time to devote to a specific problem, your experiments eventually start working…sometimes.
What was your favorite class ever? My molecular and cell biology class opened up the complex world of the cell, with its factory-like production, information processing, and molecular machines that make life work. Each cell seems as busy as the world’s largest cities, yet there are trillions of cells in our bodies that work together for a single organism. Furthermore, the diversity of life makes it seem like there are infinite strategies for life to adapt to the environment. The level of complexity and scale is awe-inspiring and baffling, but we are now building the technologies to truly understand this microscopic world.
When did you decide to pursue plant biology? Thinking of the best places to apply my love for biological research, I became increasingly aware of the food security threats we are facing as a growing human population in the wake of climate change. Plants, fascinating in their own right as these light-harvesting, chemical factories that must adapt to unpredictable environmental conditions, are central to our ability to feed ourselves and maintain large societies. With my first taste of working in a plant lab and thinking about ways we can make crops grow in stressful environments, I knew I had made the right choice.
What did you do between undergrad and grad school? I stayed in my undergraduate lab as a full-time technician. Before I applied to grad school I wanted to know, “Could I enjoy working in a lab every day?'”The answer was yes.
What does your lab bench look like right now? Like someone accidentally tripped and dropped a bunch scientific equipment, bottles, and papers haphazardly onto it. That’s my organizational strategy.
Favorite lab story? In my interview to join my first lab, my PI had jokingly said that I would have a trial couple of weeks before I officially joined the lab to make sure I wouldn’t clumsily “break beakers every day.” Within the first hour of my first day, I accidentally turned on the heat instead of the magnetic stirring function of the hot plate under a plastic beaker I was using to make growth media. When I saw that the beaker was starting to melt, I nervously grabbed it, but this just made the media spill out of the bottom and cover the entire surrounding work area, which meant we had to replace the mat underneath. Luckily, it turns out this is a very common lab occurrence, but I thought for sure I’d be kicked out after my first day in a lab.
How do you prefer to spend your time outside of the lab? With friends and family and in nature.
If you didn’t have to spend all day in a lab, which passion would you pursue? I’m going to say two: I think I would be a cook and an artist/illustrator. I love food and taking on challenging cooking projects and I have been drawing and painting since I was in kindergarten. The good thing about being a plant biologist is that I do get to think about food everyday and there are many opportunities to illustrate the types of scientific models you are studying. Furthermore, all of these activities involve working with your hands, whether it is a scientific protocol, a recipe, or a drawing.