In conversation with...Christine Foyer

30 September 2015 - By: Sarah Blackford

SEB Magazine editor Sarah Blackford in conversation with...Christine Foyer

Christine with her research group.Photo: Anthony Glossop

Formerly the chair of SEB’s Education Committee and a member of the Plant Section, Christine still engages actively with the SEB, regularly organising sessions during the annual main meeting and acting as handling editor on the SEB’s Journal of Experimental Botany (JXB). A prominent academic figure in the field of plant regulation and growth, Christine is professor of plant sciences and directs Africa College at the University of Leeds.

SB: Your term as Darwin Reviews1 Editor of the JXB has just come to an end, tell me more about this prestigious review series.

CF: These invited reviews (of which there are 12 published each year) differ from regular reviews as they also recognise individual achievement: We invite those with a long established career, or who have just published something new and are taking the field into a new dimension, to provide a personal perspective on a field of plant biology.

SB: You have an impressive publication record and were recently named the Redox Pioneer2 by the Antioxidant and Redox Signal journal for having several papers with over 1000 citations, as well as being the first author of the Founders Review3 of the American Society of Plant Biologists’ Plant Physiology journal. What do you think makes a ‘good’ paper or review?

CF: I seem to be fortunate that my reviews and original papers get cited really well. I enjoy writing and, even though the overriding priority is to present the data and facts accurately, putting them into a context that people can understand makes a paper more readily accessible and enjoyable for the reader. Before writing a paper, I conceptualise the ‘research story’ first, especially when writing reviews, which enables me to contextualise the facts so that others can appreciate and see clearly their significance.

SB: I assume this advice is true for funding proposals too?

CF: Yes. It’s important to have a vision first and then to use concise and accurate words to convey your ideas and research intentions. People have enough to read these days so any writing needs to be as short and to the point as possible to convey the key messages.

SB: What would you say is the most important skill required to have a successful academic research career nowadays?

CF: I would say that ‘communication’ is very much higher on the list these days: Science on its own is not enough. It doesn’t matter how good you are as a bench scientist, you need to be able to communicate your research in a way that is accessible to others. In particular, being able to write papers and grant requests, consolidated with the ability to present your work in person at meetings (both formally and informally).

SB: This is sound advice for those aspiring towards an academic career. How important do you think role models are in helping to inspire and shape people’s careers?

CF: I’m involved in the Aurora leadership programme4, which is a really excellent initiative, bringing together 300 women in Higher Education each year, to encourage them to consider senior management roles. As well helping the participants by drawing on my own experiences, I have enjoyed the activities of the event and learnt a lot from them myself. Being involved in these kinds of initiatives means taking time out from your core research and being away from your institute, but they can make an incredible difference. I remember, even as far back as my degree course, benefiting from roles models, such as my project supervisor. History and Economics had been my best subjects at school, but I decided to pursue Biology at University because I found it more interesting. It was hearing John Gurdon speak during a really inspiring guest lecture that confirmed to me I had made the right decision and that my future definitely lay with science – I never looked back!

SB: You also play an active role in programmes that support and train scientists in developing countries.

CF: The Africa College partnership and other funding initiatives, such as the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission5, have enabled me to work more closely with researchers in less developed countries to help build capacity. I train PhD and masters students and take people for short periods to teach them research skills, as well as ancillary training in writing papers and grant applications, teaching techniques and lab-related management. The aim is for them to be well on the way to becoming self-sufficient when they go back to their home country, backed up with some additional ‘remote’ support and mentoring following their return.
SB: How much has your own career been shaped by the people with whom you’ve worked alongside and collaborated.

CF: The people you work with and your environment can inspire and invigorate you. When I was doing my PhD at King’s College London, photosynthesis was at the forefront of plant biology research and I met lots of great people, some of whom still inspire me now and who went on to very dynamic careers themselves, such as Bill Rutherford, John Allen and Jim Barber. My first permanent position after my PhD was at INRA in France; I would never have dreamt of moving out of the UK had it not been for Roland Douce, who encouraged me to apply. In those days it was rare for researchers to move abroad as they do today and, of course, very few people spoke English in France then, so I was very much on my own. It’s these kinds of challenges which shape you as an individual and make you find the best in yourself – it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding times of my life.

After that, again I was encouraged to apply for a post I would never have considered at the time: Chris Pollock, the director of what was then the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (now IBERS), Aberystwyth, invited me to consider taking on the role of head of department, which he had just vacated. I took him up on it and ended up spending four very rewarding and vibrant years there, before moving to Rothamsted Research.

SB: You have recently been recognised for your contribution to science when you were in France, by being elected to the French Academy of Agriculture6. What does such an award mean to you?

CF: Receiving this award to recognise my contribution to crop sciences is a great honour. Doing science can be rewarding on so many levels and allows you to explore all your talents in different ways. I am currently the general secretary of the Federation of European Societies of Plant Biology (FESPB), which takes up quite a lot of my time. Currently, we’re planning and organising the next joint meeting with the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO), which will take place in Prague from June 26th - 30th , 2016.

SB: What other extra-research activities are occupying your time right now?

CF: Recently, I’ve been getting more involved in science policy. It’s a real pleasure and very rewarding to talk to and advise those close to government, who are in a position to make a difference. Through the Africa College, I participate in the meetings of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agriculture and Food for Development, advising on small holder farmers. For the past two years, I have also been working with the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) Food Economy Task force looking at ways to motivate young people to be interested in a career in food science for which there is currently a skill shortage7.

SB: Finally, tell me about your plans for the coming year.

CF: As well as continuing to be involved in many external projects, including organising a Royal Society meeting on “Enhancing Photosynthesis in Crop Plants: Targets for Improvement” [10th - 11th October, 2016], science remains at the core of what I am passionate about. The diversity of my research is very enriching; I work at the interface between animals and plants, looking at fundamental features of redox processes that can be equally relevant to cancer cells as plant signalling. The field keeps exploding with new advances and ideas – you never get to a point where you think you have all the answers, but I guess most people would say that!



Category: Plant Biology
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Sarah Blackford

Sarah Blackford is the head of education and public affairs at the SEB and the editor of the SEB magazine. As a qualified careers adviser and MBTI practitioner, Sarah provides career development and support for SEB members and the wider scientific community. Sarah is also an active member within SEB+, focusing on a number of initiatives aimed at improving gender equality and diversity in the science field.