Interview with Tansley Medal 2013 winner Jing-Ke Weng
Last updated: 13 Feb, 2014
The 2013 Tansley Medal was awarded jointly to two excellent scientists Dr Jing-Ke Weng of the Whitehead Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA and Dr Li-Qing Chen of the Carnegie Institution for Science, 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.
Jing-Ke’s research focuses on the evolution of metabolic pathways and has published a number of primary research papers in a range of journals including among others, papers in Science and New Phytologist. His Tansley Medal winning minireview entitled ‘The evolutionary paths towards complexity: a metabolic perspective’, highlights his contribution to research.
We conducted a short interview with Jing-Ke 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?
My childhood home was walking distance from a local botanical garden, where my father always took me with him for daily morning exercise. I spent lots of memorable time playing in the garden – tasting scarlet sage nectar, collecting acorns, making mini swords out of rose stems, digging up earthworms, and observing insects. My love for plants in the natural world was cultivated from an early age. Therefore, picking plant biology as the topic of my research at the start of graduate school was an easy decision for me. During my childhood, my mother would often give me traditional Chinese herbal remedies when I was sick. Many of these treatments were indeed very effective. This personal experience has inspired me to study the mechanistic basis for the efficacy of these herbal remedies now in my own laboratory.
The lycophyte Selaginella moellendorffii, which has been an important model system for Jing-Ke's research.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in research? What/who led you specifically down your field of research?
My father, who is a professor in geochemistry, played a big role in my career choice. His 30-plus-year career in science set a perfect example for me that being a scientist is the best job in the world – getting paid for working on questions you’re passionate about. Throughout my scientific career I was also lucky enough to have two great mentors, Dr. Clint Chapple at Purdue University and Dr. Joseph Noel at the Salk Institute. I have learnt tremendously from both of them, not only on the technical aspects of carrying out research, but – more importantly – also on how to enjoy science as a lifelong passion.
What are the current hot topics/big questions in your field
How did complex metabolic traits arise in a Darwinian fashion? How can we efficiently identify genes and pathways underlying the biosynthesis of specialized metabolites in any plant species of interest? What is the mechanistic basis for the so-called ‘matrix effect’ observed in many traditional herbal remedies?
Jing-Ke's fossil collection, which includes several extinct lycophyte specimens.
How do you think your research benefits society?
The basic understanding of plant biochemistry will ultimately instruct the design of synthetic biofactories to produce renewable energy, commodity chemicals, and pharmaceuticals.
What motivates you to go to work on a day-to-day basis?
Being a scientist, there is always something new to experience every day: progress on an experiment, meeting with other scientists, mentoring students and postdocs, having new ideas over a coffee with a colleague, etc.
Who (scientist or not) do you see as your role model(s)?
As mentioned above, my PhD advisor Dr. Clint Chapple and my postdoctoral advisor Dr. Joseph Noel are two significant scientific role models for me. I will try my best to pass all the good characteristics I learnt from them on to mentoring the next generation of scientists in my own laboratory.
Jing-Ke checking out a plant in the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, DC.
What’s your favourite thing about your job?
The freedom to explore unknowns in the natural world and to stumble on unexpected discoveries from time to time.
… and your least favourite
Really not much. If I had to pick one thing, it has to be the moment when your grant proposal is turned down.
What advice would you give to an aspiring plant biologist / researcher?
Always think outside the box! If you constantly feel that you might get scooped by your competitors, it’s time to seriously think about switching research topic. Be the leader of a field that you initiated rather than chase the hottest one at the moment.
Why did you apply for the New Phytologist Tansley Medal and how do you think it might benefit your career?
I learnt about the Tansley Medal when it was established in 2009. Throughout the years, I have been motivated by all the past winners of this prestigious award. I also got to know about the life and works of Sir Arthur George Tansley, and felt that many of my research interests indeed connect to the avant-garde visions he had on evolution and ecosystems back in the early 20th century. It is truly a great honor for me to receive the Tansley Medal. Writing the minireview has also been a fun experience, and has indeed yielded some new, interesting testable hypotheses that I am currently pursuing in my laboratory.
Would you advise other people to apply for the New Phytologist Tansley Medal?
I would strongly encourage other plant scientists to apply. This will be a great experience for your scientific career.
Where do you see yourself in 5, 10, 20 years' time?
I would like to see myself having made a number of solid discoveries in my field 5 years from now. In 10 years, I would like to be able to connect these individual discoveries into a knowledge system, which, as a whole, contributes to our understanding in some fundamental principles in biology. In 20 years, I hope I could have made a positive impact on our society that goes beyond my research field.
Aside from science, what other passions do you have - where would we find you if you’re not working in the lab/office/field?
Besides being a scientist, I’m also an established tango dancer, a classical guitarist, and I enjoy classical music, sports, and traveling. I also spend much of my spare time playing with my two kids.
There is a life outside the lab for scientists. Jing-Ke enjoying tango with Maria Coburn and playing at the beach with his daughter.
For more information about Jing-Ke's research please visit http://wi.mit.edu/people/faculty/weng or contact him directly at wengj(at)wi.mit.edu.