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Dr. C. Robin Buell is a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar Chair in Crop Genomics in the Department of Crop & Soil Sciences and the Center for Applied Genetic Technologies at the University of Georgia. She received her BSc in biology from the University of Maryland, her MSc in plant pathology from Washington State University, and her PhD in biological sciences/molecular biology from Utah State University. Afterwards, she conducted postdoctoral research at Michigan State University and at the Carnegie Institution of Washington (Stanford University). She served on the faculty at Louisiana State University, The Institute for Genomic Research, and Michigan State University before joining the faculty at UGA last year. Robin has been elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement for Science and the American Society of Plant Biologists. In addition, she was awarded the 2022 McClintock Prize for Plant Genetics and Genome Studies by the Maize Genetics Cooperation Advocacy Committee. In our interview, she shares more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:32)
In her free time, Robin enjoys tending to the vegetables in her garden, watching college basketball and football games, and spending time with her two rescue dogs.
The Scientific Side (3:43)
Robin studies the DNA of plants to better understand how plants do things like grow, respond to stress, reproduce, and evolve. Her work spans a wide variety of plants including crop plants (corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes), medicinal plants (those that make anti-cancer drugs), and other plants with interesting properties (basil, oregano, catnip, and cat mint).
A Dose of Motivation (4:50)
There are still many interesting unanswered questions about plants, and Robin likes to solve these puzzles about how plants work using historical knowledge and newer technology.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (7:13)
As a kid growing up in rural Maryland, Robin spent a lot of time with animals. They had cats, dogs, horses, and chickens at home, and she planned to go to school to become a veterinarian. However, during her sophomore year, Robin had a bad experience with a zoology course and a great experience with a botany course. At this time, she also applied for a job as a dishwasher in a lab focused on plant physiology. These factors led Robin to shift her plans to start working on plants. Since then, she has had a series of great mentors and research experiences working in labs across the U.S.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (14:31)
Robin and her lab members have been struggling with a project examining how plants like potatoes produce tubers. Tubers are underground organs in a plant that store nutrients to sustain them over winter and then germinate in the spring. Some of these tuber-producing plants they study come from the Andes Mountains in South America. As summer ends and fall begins, the temperature cools, the days become shorter, and the plants start to produce tubers. It took Robin a really long time to get their plants to start making tubers in the lab. For a different plant species, they were able to get the plants to make tubers, but they kept forming above ground, not underground. It has been really difficult to exactly mimic the environmental conditions that trigger these plants to make tubers normally in their natural habitat.
A Shining Success! (19:55)
Sequencing the first rice genome was an important success that Robin was excited to be a part of. The project began in 1999, and they finished the sequence in 2005. Afterwards, they continued to improve the annotations on the genome sequence until 2011. At the time, rice was only the second plant to have its genome generated. Their work and their database has allowed thousands of researchers working on rice to make accelerated progress in rice genetics and rice breeding to make improved rice varieties with greater production potential, more disease resistance, and other features. It really changed how people worked with rice.
Robin has also been working on potatoes since 1999, and she was involved in sequencing the potato genome. Potatoes are a critical food crop around the world, but not many scientists work on potato biology and breeding new potatoes. The potato genome is much bigger than that of rice, and it is more complicated. It has been exciting to work with her collaborators for many years and to see her research applied to develop new breeds of potatoes and to break long-standing myths about potatoes that have persisted for about 100 years.
Book Recommendations (28:19)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Most Treasured Travel (18:04)
Through her work, Robin has been able to travel all over the world. One particularly memorable trip brought her to Peru. While she was there, Robin was able to visit areas where the Inca civilization grew corn and potatoes using terraces, as well as to see how farmers today are growing crops on this land at an elevation of 10,000 feet. They grow potatoes there, harvest them, and then the cold, dry air freeze-dries the crops in place to provide a stable food supply for the winter. It was amazing to learn about historical and current agricultural practices in Peru, and she was also able to see the ruins of Machu Picchu during this trip.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (29:35)
For Robin, her lab is like a family. Each year, she welcomes new students and postdocs into the lab who are interested in training to get a job doing something they are passionate about. Robin trains them in research, works with them, and watches them grow and develop as scientists. Then, each of these trainees moves on to their next position or to launch their own independent research career. It is exciting to celebrate all the milestones with them like their qualifying exam, first research paper, and their dissertation defense. Robin also enjoys staying in touch with her former trainees, visiting their labs, and reflecting on the good times they’ve shared together.
Advice For Us All (35:51)
Spending your life doing things you are engaged in will keep you mentally healthy and give you a lot of satisfaction, so do something you enjoy. Also, many trainees Robin has worked with over the years have been hesitant to apply for jobs that they feel they are not qualified for or that may not be the best fit. Remember, you cannot turn down an offer you don’t have. If you are interested in a position, you should apply. You never know where you’re going to end up in life, and you never know where a new job may lead.
Robin’s research focuses on the genome biology of plants including comparative genomics, bioinformatics, and computational biology. She has worked on the genomes of Arabidopsis, rice, potato, maize, switchgrass, sweet potato, mints, and medicinal plants. With expertise in bioinformatics, one component of Dr. Buell’s research is provision of databases and web-based data-mining tools for the greater scientific community. Dr. Buell maintains the Rice Genome Annotation Project, which receives over 2 million page visits a year. Robin has an active research group composed of postdoctoral research fellows, research assistants, graduate students, undergraduate students and high school interns and collaborates with scientists across the United States and throughout the world. When not busy with science, she tends to her home garden, her two dogs (Sherman and Mr. Peabody), and watches college sports with her husband.