An interview with Etienne Laliberté, winner of the Tansley Medal 2016

Etienne Laliberté of the University of Montreal is the winner of the 2016 New Phytologist Tansley Medal for excellence in plant science. Etienne is one of five early career plant scientists shortlisted for the award. The finalists were invited to submit single author reviews, published as Tansley insights in Vol. 213, Issue 4 (March 2017) of New Phytologist.

Etienne’s Tansley insight, titled ‘Below-ground frontiers in trait-based plant ecology‘ highlights the importance of below-ground traits, particularly fine root traits, for predicting ecosystem functioning in a changing world. Listen to Etienne describe how he became interested in plant science, his thought process behind his Tansley insight, the hot topics in the field and his advice for early-career researchers in my interview with him below:

Etienne’s Tansley insight is accompanied by a Profile and an Editorial by Sarah Lennon, Managing Editor, and Liam Dolan, Tansley review Editor, New Phytologist. The judging panel for the 2016 Tansley Medal award was comprised of New Phytologist Editors Amy Austin, Liam Dolan, Alistair Hetherington, Elena Kramer, and Natalia Requena. The quality of finalists this year was very high and we offer our warmest congratulations to them all. The following Tansley insights by this year’s finalists are also published in New Phytologist 213:4:

Mike Whitfield
Development Coordinator
New Phytologist

Etienne Laliberté, winner of the 2016 New Phytologist Tansley Medal – interview transcript

My name is Etienne Laliberté, I’m an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Science at the University of Montreal. My research is in functional ecology with a focus on plant-soil interactions. In terms of my career, I’ve completed an Undergraduate degree in Botany and then a Masters at the University of Montreal in 2006. I then moved to the University of Canterbury in New Zealand for my PhD. I completed that in 2010 and then I immediately joined the University of Western Australia as Assistant Professor. I worked there for about four years and then I moved back to Canada in 2015 to take up my new position here at the University of Montreal.

I think I was drawn to plant science and plants in general from an early age. My earliest childhood memories are walks in the forest with my family, and I’ve always been curious about the natural environment. In my last year of college I learned more specifically about plant biology and found it really fascinating, so I decided to enroll in a Botany degree. But I quickly realised that I enjoyed fieldwork far more than labwork. Botany piqued my curiosity about why some plants grow in one place and not another, so really Plant Science emerged as a way for me to better understand vegetation patterns in nature.

I applied for the New Phytologist Tansley Medal because one of my colleagues, Professor Hans Lambers at the University of Western Australia, alerted me to it and encouraged me to apply. Obviously the Medal is a great honour – it gives extra visibility to my research. In terms of benefiting my career I hope it will help me to forge new collaborations, both locally, nationally, internationally.

So the Tansley insight I wrote, entitled ‘Below-ground frontiers in trait-based plant ecology’ is really about plant functional ecology, which is a field that is becoming increasingly popular in ecology because it offers us a way to understand how plant community composition and plant diversity is affected by environmental changes. To do so it focuses on plant functional traits, which are characteristics of plant species that we can measure and tell us something about how a plant functions in its natural environment. This has led to the development of really large plant trait databases, but the traits that are typically measured have a really strong above-ground bias – mostly dealing with leaves, specific leaf area, for example. Because soils play a major role in shaping vegetation, I think there’s a need to focus more on below-ground traits, particularly fine root traits. This is what this Tansley insight is about. So the idea was to identify six frontiers that are needed to advance the field; the first one being that we need to redefine fine roots in terms of order; quantify how root traits vary in functional space, in multiple dimensions; we need to better integrate mycorrhizas and endotraits; we need to broaden the suite of root traits that we measure; we need to understand the linkages between root traits and abiotic and biotic environments; and finally the last frontier identified is that we need to better understand ecosystem-level consequences of root traits, particularly with regard to soil carbon and nutrient cycling. So the idea was to review recent research on those topics, most of which has been published in New Phytologist in the last few years.

I guess the big questions in my field in plant functional and plant community ecology… well I kind of see two. The first one has always been the Holy Grail in plant community ecology: really we want to be able to predict how plant communities, both in terms of their composition but also their diversity, will vary across environmental gradients, how they will vary with global environmental changes. So that’s really still the big question, and I think plant functional ecology can help us to address that question. The second hot topic in my field is to better understand feedback between plants and their soil biota, and how those plant-soil interactions shape plant community composition but also plant diversity.

I think my research can benefit society in several different ways, but the main one is that we all know that human activities are having a large impact on biodiversity, and my research really is about understanding how environmental factors shape plant biodiversity. So the research really helps us to better understand how natural ecosystems work, and it can then help us to better manage them.

Many people have had an influence on my research career, either as [role] models, sources of inspiration, or as mentors. I guess there are three that have left a more profound impression on me. First of all, my dad – so on a more personal level, has always been a great source of inspiration, for example for his ability to unite a team around a common goal, with good team-building skills. More recently, Professor Hans Lambers at the University of Western Australia has been a fantastic mentor – really a superb scientist, a great colleague and also a friend – he has boundless energy and passion for plant science and I found that particularly inspiring. During my Masters, Professor Pierre Legendre here at the University of Montreal was also a very inspiring figure, an outstanding scientist in the field of numerical ecology and a great teacher, who set the bar high and really motivated students for research.

My favourite thing about my job has to be the intellectual freedom that we have. I also really enjoy the creative aspect of doing science and research, which is incredibly stimulating. Also interacting with students, being constantly challenged by them, and knowing that going to work every day means that you’ll learn new things. These have to be my most favourite things about the job really.

So in five years’ time I see myself, probably in the same position – the same job – as a Professor at the University of Montreal, perhaps with a slightly larger group of grad students, and hopefully with a little bit more research funding and a little bit more time to do the research!

The advice I would give to early career researchers first is: define a research topic that you’re truly passionate about; the second thing would be to surround yourself with other positive, motivated people; the third one – perhaps a bit more difficult – try to find a mentor, you can’t always find them but they can be of invaluable help; fourth, I think I’d encourage people to really seize research opportunities as they arise; and finally, to not lock yourself into a particular place – be prepared to move around the world, to seize those research opportunities.

If I’m not working in the lab, in the office or in the field, I’ll usually be spending time with my family, ideally outdoors – we love camping, we love playing outdoors. I’m also often seen on a bicycle.