Why I research: Neil Emery

The first in an occasional series in which Ontario university researchers explain why they do what they do. Today’s guest blog comes from Trent University’s Vice President, Research & International, Neil Emery

I didn’t start out as a particularly hard working undergraduate student.  I did science (at first) simply because I found it easy to study.

While I enjoyed my classes, they didn’t necessarily light a fire within.

But as my B.Sc. moved on, I noticed a group of science faculty who had that fire. In my third year I was taking courses in both human biochemistry and plant biochemistry. The former was taught by a bored speck at the front of a 400 person lecture hall; the latter by a manic team of high-flying researchers in a small room with about 15 students.  They injected their enthusiasm and personal stamp into topics I might have never thought interesting before. (I wouldn’t have imagined it would be so exciting, for example, to get on board the fructose-1,6 bisphosphatase regulatory bandwagon.)  After a challenging (and near-failure) of an Honours research project, I realized I had caught the bug. While I merely enjoyed studying science, I loved creating knowledge in a field as wide open as plant chemistry.

Fast forward to 1994 and a PhD completed in the evolution of a plant hormone system in the natural chickweed populations of  Alberta’s mountains and foothills … not exactly applied science.  Academic job prospects in the early 1990s were as grim in Canada as they are today. Luckily Australia was hiring, and I landed a job in agriculture research – I was based at a university but my work was funded by a Farmers’ Association.

It was a bit daunting suddenly to have to rationalize my professional existence to some very practical-minded funders. But it turned out Ihad lots of transferable skills. After I toned down the pure science mantel, I found myself becoming an expert on yield potential of grain legumes (that’s right – beans).

I learned agri-speak, figured out how to collaborate with industry, and how to diversify goals and land funding. Looking back, it was probably the best career training I encountered.  It impressed on me how important the spectrum of research is from pure to applied, and how difficult it would be to carve out a career only claiming to do one or the other.  Government and funding agency priorities swing in various ways over time and this will isolate spectrum extremists.  Recently, Canada has surely shuffled resources into jobs and the economy and, hence, applied research. The change can be hard, but many researchers are able to respond.

Personally I’m left with an amazing mix of challenges.  On one hand, my lab is endeavoring to improve non-GMO soybean yields in cooperation with an SME (Sevita International) and wheat yields with a multinational (Dow Agrichemical). On the other hand, we are uncovering freakishly unexpected results like the discovery that insects, bacteria and fungi all make plant hormones. The latter NSERC-Discovery funded research may turn out to have great consequences for improving crop growth and yield. One can perhaps envisage the perfectly time growth message to a seed or fruit as devised not by the plant itself, but by an insect or fungal agent.

I find all these avenues exciting and it’s my continuing realization that, regardless of political winds, the field of plant chemistry will remain as wide-open now as it ever has been – providing fertile research ground for years to come.

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