La Trobe microbiologist Jen Wood is a leader in her field, who’s also passionately paving the way for female scientists to prosper in their careers.
A PhD candidate in her fourth and final year, Wood trod an unconventional path to get to where she is today, crediting La Trobe for being one of the few universities to ‘take a chance’ on her.
Wood shares her journey from Fine Arts graduate to ground-breaking researcher in soil microbial communities – the big picture outcome of which could massively improve agricultural practices and global food security.
Can you tell us about your PhD research?
My role in the lab is actually not to work with just one or even a couple of microbes that are really interesting, but to work with an entire microbial community and ask: what can we do with the microbial community that’s really remarkable?
One of the remarkable things soil microbial communities can do is called ‘phytoremediation’, which is basically using special plants that can ‘suck up’ large amounts of heavy metals to clean up the environment. So, my PhD is about looking at the soil microbial community and asking how we can get it to work with the plant to improve phytoextraction?
What excites you about researching microbial communities?
The thing that is really exciting about my work and that I love is that we’ve known about microbes and plants working together for phytoextraction for decades. It’s been around for a long time. But, the ability to look at microbial communities the way I’m doing in my research has only been around for about ten years, which is a tiny blip in science terms.
I love phytoextraction because it’s biotechnology with lots of really beautiful outcomes. We’re talking about cleaning up heavy metal contamination, which is important because heavy metals don’t degrade in the soil and they are toxic to humans. Mining, landfills and some agricultural activities can all lead to heavy metal contamination of our land.
If we want to use that land to do more agriculture, or to set up a conservation reserve or even build our homes on it, it’s really important we get the heavy metals out before we do that.
What could be the wider positive outcomes of your research?
If we can unlock the secret of getting soil microbes to improve plant health, we can improve plant growth and yield. That’s a big step towards global food security and in countries where they can’t afford chemical fertilizers, it might even be a step away from poverty and famine because using the soil biology to improve yield potentially isn’t going to cost farmers much.
How close are you to unlocking the secret?
We’re really at the start of the journey. As I said, microbiologists have only been looking at soil communities in this way for ten years and mostly what we learnt is that there’s so much diversity there and so much to learn.
So, it’s a new field and we’re just at the tipping point, moving into the next phase. There’s a way to go, but I think it will advance really rapidly.
Have you always been interested in microbiology?
My dirty secret is that I never studied microbiology in my undergraduate. I am a plant person, which is why I like dirt and soil and microbiology. What I’ve always loved in plant science and ecology is interactions between organisms. When I finally realised that micro-organisms were the basis of these plant micro-interactions and interactions within micro-communities that’s what really drew me in. So, I came here in a round-about way.
Wow. How did you find the transition into microbiology?
I majored in plant biology at La Trobe and did my Honours in biochemistry. I’d heard about Dr Frank’s lab and, at the end of my Honours year, I emailed him not knowing if he’d be interested in taking [me on]. The response I got was ‘come on in, we’ll have a chat’ and ‘what is it you want to do? We can do that.’ I felt very supported from the very beginning. I would say that has been my experience throughout my undergrad too.
My first degree was in Fine Arts at another university. I wasn’t very good at being an artist. I came to La Trobe as a mature-aged student with the intention to transfer into a vet course at another uni. I ended up staying at La Trobe, however, mostly because I was inspired and encouraged by the lecturers I met.
My partner also did his undergraduate at La Trobe and has just started a PhD, in mathematics. Neither of us would be doing what we love if it wasn’t for La Trobe because they took a chance on us. We didn’t do the right prerequisites all those years ago, when we were 18. We both came back as mature age students and La Trobe was one of the few unis that said ‘come and prove yourself and we’ll let you in’.’
It’s interesting you’ve found La Trobe to be a supportive environment because it seems you’ve had a part in fostering this environment with the Supporting Women in Science group you’ve started. Can you tell us about this?
Have you heard of ‘the leaky pipeline’? If you take all of the science cohorts together, there’s about a 50/50 even split of women and men at the student and even PhD level. When they enter a research career, however, the number of women drops rapidly until you get to the high level professors where’s there’s only about one in five women. So, we have all these women start studying science and then, where do they all go?
My microbiology colleague Lara Bereza-Malcolm and I co-founded SWIS a little less than a year ago to promote gender equity and a support network for female students amongst the PhD cohort because they’re the ones about to step into this pipeline.
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