Interview with Tansley Medal 2013 winner Li-Qing Chen

Last updated: 13 Feb, 2014

The 2013 Tansley Medal was awarded jointly to two excellent scientists Dr Li-Qing Chen of the Carnegie Institution for Science, USA and Dr Jing-Ke Weng of the Whitehead Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. Read the Editorial in Volume 201 Issue 4, by New Phytologist Section and Tansley Review Editor Liam Dolan, which highlights their achievements.


The Tansley Medal is a prestigious award which recognises scientists in the early stages of their careers, who have made an outstanding contribution to research in plant science. Applicants are initially asked to submit a CV and statement and if shortlisted are asked to write a minireview which is sent for external peer review and subject to the normal high standards required by New Phytologist.


Li-Qing has a background in forest genetics and nutrient acquisition and has published a number of high-profile papers in a range of journals including among others, Nature, Science and New Phytologist. Her Tansley Medal winning minireview entitled ‘SWEET sugar transporters for phloem transport and pathogen nutrition’, highlights her contribution to research.


We conducted a short interview with Li-Qing to find out a bit more about the person behind the outstanding scientist.


What inspired your interest in plant science? Were you drawn in from an early age, or was there someone or something that sparked it?

I was born and raised in a small village where my parents had a small farm in which they grew a variety of vegetables and crops. I spent much of my childhood playing in the fields and ended up with a great love for plants. My interest in plant science grew gradually in the years leading up to graduate school. At that time, I decided I would find it much easier to find a better job with a master’s degree rather than a bachelor degree. The most significant moment was when I had the opportunity to visit and join one of the world’s best plant molecular biology labs – Yunliu Fan’s lab at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. After I started my master’s project, I quickly realized that asking questions and addressing questions by doing experiments was highly enjoyable. My interest in plant science has grown and grown ever since.


Photo of Dr. Li-Qing Chen

Li-Qing enjoying the beauty of nature.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in research? What/who led you specifically down your field of research?

I really enjoyed my master’s degree research project. Along the way, I met lots of nice people who inspired me a great deal. I decided I wanted to continue my career in research and in order to do this I pursued a PhD degree. I joined another excellent lab, Wei-Hua Wu’s lab, where I learned many fascinating facts and obtained some fantastic results. With my interest in addressing fundamental physiological questions and a desire to broaden my horizons, I moved to the US for my postdoctoral training. Here, Wolf Frommer led me specifically to my field of research – sugar translocation in plants.


What are the current hot topics/big questions in your field

I think the big questions in my field are: how carbon partitioning is controlled from the cellular level to the whole plant level, how plant symbionts or pathogens co-opt at nutrient-level (such as sugar), and how we apply these research results to our lives.

How do you think your research benefits society?

I am working on sugar transporters that are very important for the transport of photoassimilates from photosynthetic tissues to heterotrophic tissues (such as root, fruit and seed). There is a new drive to improve crop yield in order to meet the demands of population growth by manipulating the functions of these sugar transporters in plants.

What motivates you to go to work on a day-to-day basis?

Curiosity about questions such as ‘what if …’, ‘why does this work’, ‘why doesn’t it work’ and ‘how about another hypothesis’, and trying to find the answers to these questions, are the key motivations that drives me go to work on a day-to-day basis.

Who (scientist or not) do you see as your role model(s)?

Prof. Wolf Frommer with whom I am working now is a knowledgeable and energized person. He always has lots of scientific questions and creative ideas. His strong passion in science and his dedication to research always inspires me. He is one of my best role models.

Dr. Li Qing Chen - Carnegie Institution for Science

Li-Qing enjoying a peaceful moment on a 'warm' carnegie chair in a cold day


What’s your favourite thing about your job?

Discovering new things behind phenomena and applying these discoveries to make our lives better.

… and your least favourite

The lack of funding affects lots of biologists’ scientific careers. In particular, funding in plant biology is continuously getting cut in the US.

What advice would you give to an aspiring plant biologist / researcher?

If you are going to have a research career, be prepared to face failures in experiments and rejections to your submissions and applications. Passion is always the key to success.

Why did you apply for the New Phytologist Tansley Medal and how do you think it might benefit your career?

Prof. Wolf Frommer encouraged me to apply for the New Phytologist Tansley Medal in the first place. And then, I wondered whether the contribution of my research was competitive with that of other research globally. Winning the Medal has given me positive energy that will certainly strengthen my passion for science.

Would you advise other people to apply for the New Phytologist Tansley Medal?

Yes, I would highly recommend other people to apply for this Medal. The Medal helps to evaluate the contribution of one’s research in her/his early career and will definitely have a great positive impact on the winner’s later career. Writing the single-author minireview is also a very valuable experience.

Where do you see yourself in 5, 10, 20 years' time?

I would love to continue working in plant science and I would love to be a professor and run my own lab.

Aside from science, what other passions do you have - where would we find you if you’re not working in the lab/office/field?

I used to have some hobbies like swimming, practicing Yoga and watching comedy movies.  Now I spend most of my spare time with my family. We go to the park or go for a walk with my little son.


photo of Dr. Li-Qing Chen with baby son and friends

Two-month old Carnegie's babies meeting


If you have more questions for Li-Qing or about the Tansley Medal, do get in touch by email on Twitter @NewPhyt or on


For more information about Li-Qing’s research please visit or contact her at lchen2(at)


Click here to read Li-Qing's Tansley Medal winning minireview entitled ‘SWEET sugar transporters for phloem transport and pathogen nutrition

Click here to read the interview with Dr Jing-Ke Weng who was also jointly awarded the 2013 Tansley Medal.