Turning point: Martin Jonikas

How did you become interested in biology?

During my undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, I took a required course in molecular biology. Biological machines can make complex proteins that humans can't, and I thought that biology was going to become a major frontier for engineering. I wanted to be part of it.

Did you go straight into plant biology?

No, I did a PhD at the University of California, San Francisco, on basic molecular biology. We used genome-wide screening to identify a new pathway required for protein folding in yeast. While planning research proposals to apply for positions as a fellow, I realized that no one was applying high-throughput genetic tools to photosynthesis, one of my areas of interest, and that I could fill that niche. The time spent refining proposals helped me to secure a position as a 'staff associate' at the Carnegie Institution for Science.

How is that different from a normal postdoc?

I have a five-year non-tenure-track position. I'll be working to characterize the genes at work in photosynthesis and to make it more efficient. One of the benefits is that I can run a lab and assemble a team, so we can work on problems in depth and do exciting research.

How did you get your grant?

It was an unusual process. Last September, the NSF and the BBSRC assembled about 30 researchers to brainstorm on how to improve photosynthesis. I thought that this was a wonderful opportunity, and a grant would just be the cherry on top. One of the constraints on photosynthesis is that the primary enzyme that converts carbon dioxide into sugars, Rubisco, works best under higher carbon dioxide levels than exist in the atmosphere today. But some plants can concentrate carbon dioxide around Rubisco. Three colleagues and I suggested characterizing the components of this concentration mechanism, and trying to put them into some crop plants. We're not claiming that we will change agriculture, but we think we are onto a real opportunity to improve photosynthesis.

What has been the biggest challenge during your first year in this position?

The hardest thing about starting a lab is recruiting. I'm competing with high-profile researchers who have established track records and funding. Yet it's crucial to get good people. No matter how good a scientist you are, you only have so much time. I've hired five people so far.

How did you overcome that challenge?

The key is to be active. I e-mail friends and colleagues and let them know I'm looking for excellent people. I can offer exciting projects not being done in other labs. I've also made it clear that I will help new hires to get what they need to make their dreams come true. Many will want faculty positions after leaving my lab. To get them, they might need something I can't provide, such as a letter from someone established in the field, but I will help them to get those letters.

So you could be competing against your postdocs for jobs?

We've created a niche for ourselves in the field of functional genomics of plants, so hopefully there will be plenty of room for us all to have exciting careers. I am laying plans to avoid competition and create win–win situations for everybody.

Past attempts to improve photosynthesis have failed. Are you concerned?

Yes. It is risky and we may not achieve it. But given our approach, we're bound to discover important and fascinating biology.


This article was originally published in the journal Nature.