Jennifer Nemhauser, UW Biology Professor, is interviewed in an article in The Washington Post on mentor Joanne Chory, a plant biologist working to find climate solutions in plants.
After receiving her PhD, Chory decided to join a lab that experimented with a tiny weed called Arabidopsis mainly because it seemed less competitive than researching microbes or fruit flies. With so few other scientists studying it, “I thought I could really make a difference there,” she recalled.
For one of her first experiments, Chory wanted to identify a genetic mutation that caused some Arabidopsis plants to be purple instead of green. She stuck some of the seedlings in a dark chamber, just to see what would happen.
Logic dictated that the plants would wither soon after sprouting, deprived of the light that’s needed to power photosynthesis. But several of the seedlings defied expectations, sending out fat shoots and broad, white leaves.
“Most people would say, ‘that’s strange, I didn’t get the mutant I want,’ and move on,” said Fred Ausubel, a Harvard Medical School geneticist who ran the lab where Chory was working at the time. “But Joanne realized immediately she’d found something much more interesting and important” — a mutation that caused plants to thwart their own biology and grow in the dark.
Though the initial discovery was a fluke, it launched Chory into decades of intensive study. Her first major academic paper revealed the gene that switches on a plant’s “growth mode” in response to sunshine. Next she identified hormones that dictate plants’ shapes and sizes. Her discoveries paved the way for research that would improve farmers’ yields and make crops more resilient.
The scientific establishment initially was resistant to the findings — and to the dynamic woman who delivered them. Older researchers would question her analyses. Male classmates and colleagues would try to intimidate her with pranks.
But Chory had inherited determination from her mother, who had dropped out of high school to go to work during the Great Depression, and resilience from her father, who labored long hours as an accountant so the family could make ends meet. She got her thick skin from her siblings, who she lovingly claims “were meaner than anyone I ever met in the lab.”
Eventually, Chory became a plant research superstar. She established her own lab at the Salk Institute, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Her published research was taught in college biology classes, where it awed aspiring scientists like Jennifer Nemhauser, who dreamed of studying in Chory’s lab.
“It was so obvious that she was an incredibly original thinker and someone who is very brave — to do things that other people would consider too hard, too weird, too ambitious,” Nemhauser said.
When she came to work with Chory as a postdoctoral fellow in 2000, Nemhauser was ready to be impressed by the older woman’s ferocious intellect. She didn’t expect Chory to be compassionate, witty and wise, with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a willingness to hear out any idea.
“It was the most heady scientific environment I’ve ever been in,” said Nemhauser, now a professor at the University of Washington. Chory’s lab meetings often turned into freewheeling discussions and vigorous debates. The conversations would end with everyone grinning and drenched in sweat.
In 2004, Chory summoned her team to a more sober gathering. She had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a degenerative brain disorder that can cause tremors, mobility problems and severe pain, among other symptoms. Though the disease can be treated, there is no cure.
Nemhauser recalled the stricken scene that filled the lab after the announcement. Chory was only 49. She had two young children. It didn’t seem fair that such an accomplished and beloved person would have to deal with so much pain.
Almost everyone in the room was in tears, Nemhauser said. But Chory’s eyes stayed dry.
Read the full article in The Washington Post.