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The highs and lows of scientific research

Toddlers constantly bumble about their surroundings, accidentally learning how things work. Flipping a switch makes a room go dark; squeezing a fuzzy toy makes a funny squeak.

Doing science can be just as unpredictable, as the researchers behind the He lab’s latest study, Xiufang Xin and Kinya Nomura, tell it.

The study, published in the journal, Nature, establishes a connection between high environmental humidity levels and bacterial plant disease.

The harmful bacteria live in the space between plant cells in the leaves – known as the apoplast - one normally filled with air so plants can breathe and do photosynthesis.

It was found that the bacteria trick the plant into producing water in the apoplast, causing water flooding in plant leaves, a favorable environment for bacteria to multiply aggressively. (Full story here).

A cell
By Harley J Seeley Photography

Plant defenders

Xiufang, a post-doc from China, joined the He lab for her doctoral work in 2009. “It was the first time I learned about plant interactions with microbes, and I liked the research projects, the environment, and the good science they were doing.”

Kinya Nomura, a post-doc from Japan, has been a cornerstone in the lab since he joined in 2000. “I like the USA, the experiments are interesting, and there are many fascinating and diverse people here, especially compared to Japan. Also, when I applied to American institutes, my wife preferred we stay close to a big lake, like Lake Michigan.”

Kinya and Xiufang with their plants
Kinya Nomura (left) and Xiufang Xin (right)

In 2014, Xiufang was close to graduation and planning to leave MSU, but she and Kinya stumbled on an intriguing observation that led to them teaming up on a new project.

A lucky research break

Studying the world around us is a complex business according to Kinya. “Living things are complicated, and most of the times, our hypotheses – our educated guesses – about how things work are wrong. Yet, once in a while, we come across ‘strange’ data and stumble on the right guess. It’s luck within a framework.”

That is what happened as Xiufang and Kinya tested plants under varying environmental conditions. They kept observing that humidity levels had a huge effect on disease development.

“We didn’t design that initial experiment to seek this particular knowledge,” Xiufang says. “But this repeated observation pointed us towards some underlying mechanism.”

How to play in the lab

Making sense of the unexpected data required creative thinking. “Data is not straightforward,” Kinya says. “Two people might look at the same data set and draw very different conclusions.” Case in point, water flooding of the apoplast, while known in the field for quite a while, had not been connected to a major bacterial virulence strategy until now.

Two sets of plants reacting to humidity levels
Splotchy leaves, top, due to higher humidity and water soaking
Courtesy of He lab

And what fuels a creative mindset is an innate curiosity to understand the world.

“Often there is something that intrigues you that you don’t completely understand, but you really want to figure out how it works,” Xiufang says. “Then you read and think a lot about the question. In fact, most good scientists love their work and are probably always thinking about it, much like our mentor, Sheng Yang.”

Kinya agrees, “I’m curious about a lot of things around me! Just recently, I wanted to check acidity levels in an insect-eating plant I have at home, because insects just melt on contact with it. So, I got a sample into the lab to test it out. Sometimes, though, this tendency of mine backfires, because I need to give attention to my wife and daughter!”

The flip-side to curiosity is that most experimentations trying to prove a point fail. No matter how carefully they prepare, Xiufang and Kinya estimate a 10 to 20 percent chance of getting successful, positive data.

Advice for aspiring scientists

But both are quick to point out that failure is part of the journey and that success ultimately comes from intrinsic motivation. “One might survive going through the motions of graduate school, but odds are it will be very challenging to have a productive science career without curiosity and inner drive,” Xiufang says.

Their advice for budding scientists: Find out if you have an intellectual bent for science and build a basic knowledge base to start out. Cultivate critical thinking skills; keep thirsty, and always read and learn in your discipline.

And balance the fun of curiosity with persistence in the face of inevitable unexpected or failed results.

With that attitude (and with some luck!), you could thrive, Xiufang says. “When it works out, as it did for us in this study, you have this awesome sense of accomplishment because you are the first to discover a piece of the puzzle. To me, that is one of the best rewards for doing science. It is intellectually satisfying and inspires me to continue learning new things.”

Kinya sums it up: “Discovery feels good, even if no one else on this planet cares about the result.”

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