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4th European Plant Science Retreat for PhD students 2012
The 4th European Plant Science Retreat for PhD students (EPSR) was held at the John Innes Cent re/ Sainsbury laboratory (JIC/TSL), in Norwich from the 14th to 17th August 2012. This event was initiated in 2007, when three European graduate schools in Plant Sciences (the Dutch Experimental Plant Sciences (EPS) Graduate School, the French Sciences du Vegetal (SDV) school and the German International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS)) initiated an international collaboration to improve research, training and education of plant science PhD students in Europe. The outcome of this collaboration was the organisation of a retreat for PhD students in Wageningen in 2008. The success of this first event was built upon when two new schools (JIC/TSL from the UK, as well as the Belgian Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie (VIB)) were invited to participate in the next retreat that took place in Cologne, Germany in 2010. In 2011 the retreat was organised in the University d’Orsay in Paris by SDV. This year’s retreat saw the inclusion of Rothamsted Research from the UK and the Centre de Recerca en Agrigenomica (CRAG) Barcelona graduate schools in order to extend the network further.
The plant science research fields covered by the graduate schools are related and complementary. The idea behind the retreat is for students to network at the European level, exchange ideas and build collaborations. It is also intended to enable students to learn more about the research carried out in European labs and prepare the next stages of their career. This year’s event welcomed 140 delegates, which was a substantial increase from the previous year.
Twenty-seven abstracts were selected for short talks by selection teams in all participating institutes. The rest of the abstracts were divided into three poster sessions: Structural and Functional Genomics, Plant Development and Plant -Biotic Interactions.
The first evening of the retreat was kicked off by a welcome dinner followed by a traditional British barn dance with local band Stookey Blue. The meeting started the next day with welcome words given by Professors Mike Merrick (Head of the graduate school at JIC/ TSL) and Sophien Kamoun (Director of the Sainsbury Lab). Over the following three days the talks spanned a wide range of plant science fields, from diverse topics as divergent as flowering time in Arabidopsis to potato tuber quality. All presentations were of a high quality and stimulated excellent questions during discussion.
Four prizes were awarded to the best speakers. Geo Velikkakam James from the Max Planck Institute in Germany won third best talk with an excellent computational biology presentation providing a user guide for sequencing based mapping in Arabidopsis. Chunxu Song from Wageningen University won second place with her pleading for “the good guys” in the rhizosphere, Pseudomonas fluorescens, unraveling the metabolism of the signal molecules cyclic lipopeptides and their role in plant-symbiote interaction. Finally, Padraic Flood, also from Wageningen University, won the best talk with an insightful presentation about the lessons he learnt from association genetics and natural variation in Arabidopsis photosynthesis. The BSPP also awarded a special prize to the best plant pathology talk, which was given to Henry Creissen from the John Innes Centre for his presentation about using Arabidopsis as a model for crop varietal mixtures.
One of the trademarks of the EPSR is a series of long poster sessions that encourage lively discussions. The choice for best poster was tough with more than 110 posters in this year’s competition. Nora Peine from the Max Planck Institute won the Plant Biotic Interactions prize for her work connecting immune receptor activation to defense outputs in plant immune response. Vimal Rawat from Wageningen University was awarded the Structural and Functional Genomics session for his analysis of regulatory elements in Arabidopsis thaliana and related species. Finally, Julio Maia de Oliveira from the Max Planck Institute won the Plant Development session for his innovative poster about the role of Abscisic acid (ABA) in desiccation tolerance in Arabidopsis seedlings.
The highlights of the retreat were the two keynote lectures given by Prof. Caroline Dean from JIC and Prof. Sir David Beaulcombe from the University of Cambridge. Caroline kicked off her presentation by an informal Q & A session to talk about her career choices, and then went on to give a fascinating talk about the intricate transcriptional and epigenetic regulation of vernalization by the master regulatory gene Flowering Locus C (FLC). The unusual start of the presentation was a great way for the students to learn more about the reasons that led Caroline from her initial studies of marine biology to transcriptional regulation in plants. David gave a very engaging presentation on the history of the discovery of RNA silencing in plants, from the first report of transgene silencing in Nicotiana benthamiana to the regulators of the silencing process, and ending with the potential uses of RNA silencing in fundamental research (virus-induced gene silencing) and applied biotechnology (virus-resistant crop plants). This led to a lively discussion about the future of these technologies in crop science.
One of the novelties of this year’s retreat which was very well received by the delegates was a career sessions. This was an excellent way to discover alternative career paths for PhD students who do not wish to stay in academia. Stuart Dunbar, Head of biochemistry at Syngenta gave a stimulating presentation, emphasizing that industry is made for scientists with an open mind. Barbara Fleck from the patent and trade mark attorney firm Marks and Clerk explained in great details what skills and attributes are needed to become a successful patent attorney. Last but not least Jane Alfred, editor at PLoS biology, unraveled her career path and explained the fulfillment of working for an unusual journal such as the Public Library of Science. The three presentations sparked discussions ranging from salaries to agribusiness ethics and political decisions in crop science.
The event was a phenomenal success, providing a professional but relaxed environment for PhD students to present their work. Furthermore, it was an excellent training opportunity for the JIC/TSL students who organised the retreat with the help and support of the Norwich Research Park, which provided excellent facilities to hold such an event. The organising committee would like to thank the BSPP for their support in the organisation of the meeting. We are looking forward to future retreats and would like to thank VIB in Ghent, who have kindly agreed to organise the EPSR in 2013.
Pauline Haleux John Innes Centre