Interview: Dr. Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso
Dr. Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso started her own research group at the Centre for Plant Sciences at the University of Leeds 3 years ago. She told us about her fascinating research and the impact of her collaborative projects during this time and previous postdoctoral research at the John Innes Centre (Norwich, UK) and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (New York, USA). We meet with her at her lab to talk about collaborations and her last interdisciplinary work.
ResearcherSkills (RS).-Tell us about your research interests, your lab and work during your scientific career.
Yoselin (Y).-My research interests at the moment are around intercellular communication and how this regulates plant’s response to developmental and environmental cues. More specifically, my lab is focussed on understanding how plasmodesmata modulate intercellular communication. Plasmodesmata are channels that transverse the cell wall so we are also interested in cell wall regulation and how it affects transport through plasmodesmata.
My research interests have developed and evolved for many years, since my degree at the Faculty of Chemistry in Cordoba, Spain. During my degree I joined the Biochemistry department and became very interested in Molecular Biology. I then pursued a PhD studying the genetic response of olive tree upon infection with a biotrophic fungus in the same department.
From there I went to the States to do my first postdoctoral at Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, New York, where I gained knowledge about symplastic transport and developed a project looking for mutants in plasmodesmata communication. This was relatively or partially unsuccessful as the mutants we identified were not plasmodesmata components but instead regulators, which probably pushed me to build up collaborations in other areas of research, for example oxidative signalling. After Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory I joined the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, in the lab of Professor Andy Maule. There I developed a completely different project screening the plasmodesmata proteome. I also did a short postdoctoral with Veronica Grieneisen at the same institute working in a multilevel modelling approach to understand symplastic communication and how it affects root development.
And that is what brought me to what I am doing today at Leeds since I started in 2013. Phew! That was long, I told you! – she laughs.
Dr. Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso at her lab at the Center for Plant Sciences (University of Leeds)
RS.-. I am curious to know how you build up collaborations, you said that it happens that sometimes a project pushes you towards it. How many collaborative projects are you involved in at the moment? How do you develop them?
Y.-Too many! – Yoselin admits and laughs out loud – Well, mainly I am involved in two projects as principal investigator, but I have several smaller collaborations here and there. Sometimes I am contacted by another researcher that is looking for expertise to do a specific experiment and I get involved. When there is a big project, that needs to be built up from scratch, you need to start conversations with other researchers finding a common ground to develop into a full grant application. Basically, all of my projects are collaborations, in some I am the principal investigator, in many others I am just a little fish in the pond contributing to the development of a project.
RS.- You have an incredibly varied and international trajectory, I would imagine that your professional network is broad, would you say that all your collaborators come from your immediate professional network?
Y.- Most of them, yes. Through a more or less direct connection to my immediate professional network. That is actually the best way to look for collaborators, in my opinion, because through the word of mouth you can learn what techniques they can provide, and also how good a potential collaborator might be! – she giggles. What they can provide is very important but it is also about the relationship that you have with your collaborator. You don’t want to be involved in a collaboration that is not fruitful because of incompatibilities in character or just because it is not the right person to collaborate with.
RS.-You just got awarded with a Leverhulme Trust grant, this is to perform a very interdisciplinary research that merges biology and biophysics, how did you find your collaborators?
Y.-Well, I have to say that this grant would not have been possible without the funding that the EPSRC gave us a year ago, one builds on the other. Also the collaborations that made that grant possible come from the EPSRC funding as well, so I should probably let you know first how we started the EPSRC grant: So, lucky for me, and that is why I always say that most collaborations come from lucky coincidences, I went to a cell wall seminar by Dr. Michael Ries. I listened to Mike give his presentation and thought: ‘this is my collaborator!’ Mike is a physicist, he was working at that moment in understanding the properties of cellulose and I saw the possibility to study the properties of cellulose around plasmodesmata and how callose interacts with cellulose. So, I talked to Mike and he was very happy to collaborate, his views are as crazy as mine. We started working together and we build up the first EPSRC grant. The Leverhulme grant is much longer and more ambitious; we want to look at other polymers and what properties these provide to the cell wall around plasmodesmata. This can also be applied to the development of new biodegradable materials. It is a win-win situation! We learn more about biology and we get innovative materials.
RS.-That sounds really interesting, it must be very challenging to conceive and develop projects with that broad spectrum, what drives you to establish interdisciplinary projects?
Y.-I don’t stop at difficult challenges, I love them. I feel that if I stick to what I know I will get uninterested very rapidly. I need to progress and for this you need interdisciplinary collaborations, and I get really excited about new collaborations, new techniques, new ways to answer a question. Without collaborations we are very limited, because there is not much a person by them self can do, the rest has to be developed through communication and collaboration to create new knowledge that gives a better answer to a question. When you see any research published it is not about one person in one lab, most of the publications are contributions from different labs. I don’t see any high impact paper out there produced by one person!
This fits my character, I am always looking at the next question and I don’t respect the boundaries of “I am a biologist and that’s what I care about”, just because I was a chemist! – she laughs.
RS.- So in a way, the nature of your research interests and your eagerness to get a better answer, makes you pursue these cross-disciplinary projects but, how common is for a principal investigator to find and nourish interdisciplinary collaborations? How rewarding from the funding point of view is to be involved in this kind of research?
Y.-I do think that actually is quite rewarding and I think that the whole research community is moving towards that. All the grant applications I have put to Research Councils that focused only in Biology have been rejected, while those that I presented to funding bodies, such as The Leverhulme Trust, with an interdisciplinary focus have been awarded. That is a 1 to 0 success rate! That is how rewarding is to do interdisciplinary work! At the moment I am announcing two postdoctoral positions and I am getting a lot of interest from other researchers, just because the first thing that the call says is that this is an interdisciplinary project and they find it very interesting. I think that people recognise the importance of interdisciplinary collaborations and funding bodies are recognising it too more and more. There is a global recognition of the importance of interdisciplinarity and that can be only encouraged by sharing resources and shared ways to communicate and I think that RS is a good way to do that.
RS.-What are the most important elements for a successful collaboration?
Y.- Excellent communication, I think is impossible to work with someone that you cannot communicate with. This includes answering emails!
Shared vision, looking at the future with the same vision is also important and the ambition to get there together. And finally to find the right people to work with. It is not easy to find researchers that are trained in multidisciplinary approaches, so finding the right person that is open to get new knowledge is essential.
RS.-And, what is important in terms of managing an interdisciplinary project?
Y.-When you have good collaborators is easy. You basically have to recognise your lack of knowledge and you have to send your postdoctoral, or yourself, to them and get trained by the people that have the expertise. You have to be extremely open-minded and be happy to learn through the collaboration.
You also have to have a broad background, I think that it would be very difficult to manage an interdisciplinary project when you only look at the biological part of it. Because I have a broad set of skills in different fields, it helps to understand other people languages.
The collaborators need to be talking the same language, but that does not mean that you understand all technical terms, which is impossible. You need to go to the basics and speak in terms that everybody can understand. That is why is very important that researchers learn to communicate their work to non-specialized and general public. If you find a good collaborator and the management is shared the project works at the best. So at the end of the day is not more difficult or more work that managing any other project.
RS.-Thanks Yoselin, it has been great chatting to you today, let’s finish with a question regarding research services. At the moment what external services do you need? And how do you expect that need to be in the near future?
Y.-At the moment most of our need are theoretically cover by equipments that are in the University. But nothing is set in stone, I expect postdoctorals to introduce and complement what we know and what we have in the university with new techniques and ideas.
On the other hand, having equipment available at the university does not mean that we know how to use it and adapt it to our needs. For example in the University there is a new cryo-EM facility that allows the visualization of plasmodesmata, we can use that facility and we aim to use it, but nobody is right now using that equipment to see plasmodesmata. Although we have the facilities that do not mean that we know how to use it, so we might need to outsource somebody else’s expertise to teach us how to use the equipment towards our aims.