In Conversation with Professor Marja Timmermans
Interview by Mayank Chugh
October 11, 2016
Dr. Marja Timmermans is an Alexander von Humboldt Professor and a distinguished plant geneticist at the Centre for Plant Molecular Biology (ZMBP), University of Tübingen. She moved to ZMBP in 2015 from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York where she has spent more than 17 years in understanding the process of stem cell differentiation and maintenance in plants using her expertise in molecular genetics. She has valuably contributed to the field with her highly acclaimed discoveries about leaf patterning and the underlying molecular mechanisms. Currently, her group focuses on small RNAs as the mobile instructive signals during plant development and shoot stem cell homeostasis.
Prof. Marja Timmermans is a faculty member at the International Max Planck Research School ‘From Molecules to Organisms’ at the Max Planck Institute of Developmental Biology, Tübingen.
What motivated you to be a scientist?
I am a scientist but originally I had other interests. As a kid, I was excited and fascinated by detectives. I always saw myself as a criminal investigator trying to solve a quest. In a way now, it makes sense. Doing science is also about applying logic, skills, and deductive reasoning to solve problems; they are just of a different nature. This is what drives me in science.
If you were not a scientist, you would be.
I guess still a police detective.
What are you working on?
Pattern formation during development. I am interested in understanding how a single fertilized egg creates a myriad of cell types and coherent structures, reproducibly. The basic criterion for these processes is communication amongst cells in the growing organism. We are trying to understand the mechanism underlying this communication.
My laboratory is addressing this problem in plants. Plants are fascinating. They are different from animals in part because they have a solid cell wall surrounding every cell that keeps them fixed in place. This becomes highly intriguing during development where cell-cell communication is indispensable. So, how do plant cells during development generate well-specified structures such as leaves, roots, flowers, etc.? The beauty of these cellulose-enclosed cells is that they are connected to each other via special channels called ‘Plasmodesmata’. Small molecules known as microRNAs, we discovered, are signals that navigate through these channels and help in the specification and differentiation of distinct cell and tissue types. This cross-communication provides particular coordinates to each cell, which helps them to define their positions relative to each other and to decide what fate they should adopt.
You can compare this process to a GPS, which communicates to you the coordinates of one object with respect to others. Similarly, cells in a developing plant converse with others and turn on and off their genes. In this manner, small groups of cells have a relative identity to each other and grow with subtle variations. Sure, this is a gradual process. That is development!
What does your average day involve?
Well, it depends. However, a big chunk of my day goes into thinking about science, talking about it with my lab. The rest of the day involves studying what other scientists are doing, writing and reviewing grants or papers.
Where do you see this field heading in the next decade or so?
We have gained a substantial understanding of plant development during the last decades, but we still have to go miles ahead in order to get detailed insights. Armies of dedicated people have discovered mutants and others have cloned them. We have information about what the gene products are and, to an extent, what their functions are. Currently we are transitioning into the mechanistic aspects of the gene products. For example, we are aware of transcription factors and other gene products, but we have negligible information about how these individual players come together and drive and influence the cell. I would see the field harbouring insights into the quantitative measurements in such experiments and taking the science to another level of sophistication and integration.
Tell us something about you that might surprise us.
I was a good basketball player as a teenager. I had played basketball at an international level.
Do you have a role model or a scientific hero?
Yes. I highly admire and respect Barbara McClintock. She was a remarkable and very insightful person. She had almost an absolute and a clear vision of the whole plant, an understanding of how plants grow and develop. Barbara discovered transposons or stretches of DNA that jump across the genome and understood them as controlling elements long before genes were known. I have met her and she was a very friendly person. A level of brilliance! One of the few unshared Nobel Prize winners.
You have moved from CSHL (New York) to ZMBP (Germany) recently. Why, and would you like to compare these two places?
CSHL and ZMBP are clearly different places. The vibes are completely different, but both have their pros and cons.
The reason I choose to come here is that the science funding in the U.S. has moved to an applied angle and has become unrealistically tight. It has less room for fundamental research and has incremental cycles. What excites me here is the many opportunities to pick up something that is exciting and is basic science research.
What advice would you give to PhDs or younger scientists?
First, I would encourage students to think hard about what really excites them in biology or any other field. It is important to identify the problem or the question that fascinates them and for which they are passionate to work. Once finalised, figure out the best way to approach that problem.
Second, I would dare them to trust their guts and express their ideas and opinions. It is sad that there are so many smart and intuitive people around but they are afraid to chase their ideas.
For more information about Dr. Timmermans research, follow the link here:
Mayank Chugh, IMPRS fellow at Cellular Nanoscience, Center for Plant Molecular Biology (ZMBP), University of Tübingen