Interview with Dr. Joyce Van Eck

Hosted by Drs. Samatha Gunapati and Aimee Malzahn

Video and audio edited by Dr. Ved Prakash


This transcript has been edited for clarity and readability. 

Aimee Malzahn: Hello and welcome to the PlantGENE podcast! My name is Dr. Aimee Malzahn. I am a staff scientist at the Boyce Thompson institute, or BTI for short, and the project coordinator for PlantGENE. I am co-hosting today’s episode with Dr. Samatha Gunapati, a research scientist at University of Minnesota. Samatha’s research focuses on trait development and transformation of soybean. 

Samatha, you’ve been an active PlantGENE member for a while, and you are involved not only in the PlantGENE Blog Team, but volunteer for the Grad, Postdoc, and Tech Network. How did you first hear about PlantGENE and why did you want to volunteer?

Samatha Gunapati: Thank you Aimee, for the introduction. I developed an interest in PlantGENE during a conference – I was at the Society for In Vitro Biology meeting in 2023, where I met the Steering Committee members it was very interesting and useful presentation. I also attended the NSF granted workshop in Wisconsin where I got hands-on experience on maize and soybean transformations, which motivated me to contribute to PlantGENE.

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing our guest, Dr. Joyce Van Eck. Joyce is a professor at the Boyce Thompson Institute, and has been a leader in the plant science and transformation community for many years. She leads The Physalis Improvement Project and BTI’s contribution to the Center for Research on Programmable Plant Systems, also known as CROPPS. Her passion for the transformation community led to the creation of the PlantGENE network and she oversees this project as chair of the PlantGENE steering committee.

Joyce, thank you so much for joining us today to talk about PlantGENE. This is a project that we all believe in, and I’m looking forward to learning more about your research.  

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SG:Q1: For listeners who aren’t familiar with PlantGENE, can you describe the project?

First, I’d like to thank both of you for inviting me to be the first guest of this podcast series. I’m very honored to have this opportunity and I appreciate the time and effort that you and the volunteers have put into this series. I think it’s going to be a great activity for PlantGENE and for our community.

PlantGENE is short for The Plant Genetic Engineering Network and it is a community-based activity, because we are really relying on feedback and input from the community to help guide our efforts to develop resources focused on improving the situation surrounding transformation.

There are a lot of issues that we all face, and instead of working individually, we feel that PlantGENE could act as a catalyst to bring people together to tackle some of these issues that we’ve been dealing with for quite some time. We have over 700 members right now, and I encourage people to please sign up through the website.

PlantGENE has two layers of management. One is we have a Steering Committee- that is a group of people who have worked in academia, industry and nonprofit research institutes. I like to say that we represent about 170 years combined experience in plant transformation and plant biotechnology. We also have Aimee as our project coordinator, which is a huge benefit to the program. We also have an advisory committee. We were very strategic in the members because we wanted representation from academia, industry, international organizations, and also have a human resource expert who specializes in diversity, equity and inclusion. So that’s kind of the basic supply chain and what we are and the people that are involved.

SG:Q2: Can you share your motivation behind starting the PlantGENE network? Why is it so important to establish scientific networks?

It all started back in 2021 during an SIVB meeting, which was still virtual at that time. I was co-convening a session called something like “Breaking Bottlenecks of Plant Transformation through Forming Collaborations”. The basic idea was to bring people together to talk about these issues we’ve been facing and how do we how do we work together, both private and public organizations, to not continue to deal with the same issues that we have been that have been really slowing down the work.

There were so many good ideas and so many people sharing the issues that they face that I felt that it would be really a shame if we just all walked away from that and didn’t try to do something. So I volunteered myself. During this session I said, “I am willing to lead a group. I just need some volunteers to help lead so that we could really continue to building on the kind of foundation that we got from that session.” The people who are on the steering committee are the ones who stepped up to volunteer for this, and we got together like, all right, we know we all have a passion about this and we really want to help.

It was suggested by one of the members that we apply for funding, and submit a grant proposal to an NSF program called the Research Coordination Network. We submitted this proposal and got fully funded. We were very excited that they were really supportive of giving us funding to help to get PlantGENE going. So that’s how it started, with an SIVB session and here we are today, two years into PlantGENE and it’s been very successful.

SG: Q3: What impact do you hope PlantGENE will have on transformation?

I really hope that it’s a way to bring people together. We all kind of again face the same problems and we’re working in isolation in our labs. Really, we need more people working together both in academia and industry, but also, between groups. I also hope that it is a benefit for the younger generation of scientists to help find mentors, to help find career opportunities, but also training through our workshops which provide basic foundational information that’s needed to help people troubleshoot or to help develop new methods. That’s the hope, is to bring people together, continue this conversation, and spark collaborations between people so that we can come up with new ways to tackle some of the problems and new initiatives.

I think it’s an ongoing, ongoing mission. I think it’s been great bringing people together; having these workshops and seeing how well-attended they are. This is all driven by community input. During our annual events, we ask people what types of workshops they are interested in. We also have a website which we kind of look as a one stop shop for information for people. I don’t think I see it as an ending, but as a continuum. We can build, and there can there be projects and initiatives that come off this. So maybe it’s not just PlantGENE, but PlantGENE is the core, and then there might be other initiatives that would be sparked by this where people can lead.

Maybe focus on a particular area, like training. Maybe there’s something where people will take that and say, all right, we’re going to submit a grant proposal. It looks like we need to really focus on training, not just hands on training, but also in the theory of why certain things are done and what not to do. Perhaps, there would be a satellite program that would build from PlantGENE.

AM: Q4: Joyce, I want to ask you about working with bigger groups of collaborators. You are the chair of the PlantGENE Steering Committee, which has been a great group to work with. You also coordinate with the PlantGENE Advisory Committee. I think it’s really interesting how that group came about organically through SIVB and this workshop that sparked things, but it was also purposeful in choosing people that represent academia, industry, government organizations, and then especially having a diversity, equity, and inclusion person on the advisory committee. What makes a great collaborator? What can listeners do to support successful collaborations in their own work?

I’m going to keep in mind one of my ideal collaborators. First and foremost, it has to be somebody who shares your passion. If they don’t share that passion, it makes it a little bit more difficult. So somebody who shares that passion, someone who is responsive when something is needed there and they move on it, it’s not someone who you have to keep prompting for information. An ideal collaborator is really responsive. It’s also someone who recognizes the needs of a collaborator. I can give you an example of what I mean by that. I have a difficult time delegating. I tend to do everything by myself, but one of my ideal collaborators is aware of that and he is willing to step up and say, Joyce, I can take care of that, or somebody in my group can take care of it. So, somebody is willing to help and take part so that the division of labor, the division of work is equal, that no one person is pulling more weight than they should and really making sure that they are again, being interactive and being engaged. That’s really important.

AM: Q5: What can listeners do to support successful collaborations?

I think first and foremost you need to be clear about expectations, what you need. That’s really right at the beginning who’s going to do what, what are the deadlines, what’s the timeline- really developing a clear and specific timeline for not only what needs to be done, but when you have to have that accomplished by.

There needs to be respect within the group. That is something that’s really important. As a collaborator, I try to remember that myself, that what my ideal collaborator is, I want to have those same characteristics. If you’re a good collaborator, then word spreads. It’s not hard to find people who want to collaborate with you on grant proposals and research projects.

AM: Q6 The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way a lot of people work. We’re here meeting over Zoom, and the virtual meeting has become the go-to for a lot of people. For better or for worse, how has technology changed your scientific collaborations? 

COVID did open up these doors for virtual collaborations, which really broadens who you can work with in different parts of the world. It also saves funding, because you don’t have to have these have a one-on-one meetings in person. We’re doing our workshops online and that expands the number of people who can attend. Some people can’t afford to go to conferences in other countries, so having something like our Zoom workshops allows for people to participate who might not be able to travel to an in-person workshop.

I do think in some instances it’s not a replacement for in-person. There’s different dynamics that happen in-person. You mentioned the CROPPS Project. We have organizations in Illinois, Arizona, BTI and Cornell, and Tuskegee University. We rely on Zoom a lot, but we do have one annual meeting in-person. While Zoom and virtual is really helpful and it’s been great, sometimes there is just no substitute for in-person.

SG: Q6: Joyce, you’ve spoken about your work on podcasts and tv, including BTI’s Breaking Ground series, the People Behind the Science Podcast, and, most recently, you were featured in PBS’s Seed Innovation video. Can you share how you got involved in these projects?

Primarily, it’s been people who know me, who’ve asked me to participate or have recommended me for a podcast or the Seed Innovations of PBS. Sometimes, if I know there’s an opportunity, I volunteer for it because I feel it’s so important to have science communication. It’s also very important for the scientists themselves to be doing it, because it’s really helpful for people to meet scientists and see that we’re real people. Some people kind of have us on a pedestal or think that we’re something different than your average person. We’re really just people who have a passion for science.

Science communication is not easy. I’m an introvert who forces myself to do this sort of thing. It’s not exactly in my comfort zone, but I feel it’s so important to do it, to engage with people of all age groups from children all the way up.

SG: Q7: How has science communication impacted your research and career?

It’s helped me to appreciate making my work accessible. It takes work, because we’re so used to jargon in our science, and it takes effort to make your research relatable. I originally wanted to be a teacher, so for me science communication fulfills that. It’s also helped in my writing, to interact with people. With a grant proposal, you have reviewers who might not be 100% familiar with your work, but having that experience of really breaking down what I’m saying and making sure people can appreciate it has really helped both in my manuscripts and in my grant proposal writing. Even though it’s out of my comfort zone, I do enjoy just interacting with the school children in elementary school, the general public people who are interested in gardening- that gives me a real joy to interact with those groups.

I work with ground cherry and golden berry. They’re this cute little yellow fruit that we’re using for our fundamental research, but my collaborators and I see that there’s potential for them to be a new fruit specialty fruit crop in the US. I felt that it was important to get firsthand feedback from farmers, home gardeners, and the consumers about what they like or don’t like. I had never done anything like a community science project before. I got funding from a local foundation, the Triad Foundation in Ithaca, New York. They funded my first year of this community science project. We reached out to local people within the community, and we had 11 farmers in different counties of New York State who grew this material for us and gave us feedback firsthand. It was a huge help to our project. Our purpose was not only for us to get this information, but to familiarize people with what ground cherry and golden berry are and how we could improve it for agricultural production. We can come out and try to market it and say, here’s this amazing crop, but if you don’t bring people along with you and educate them along the way about these new crops, then it’s not going to have as much impact in the end.

We started out small just in New York State and it was successful. The next year, we got additional funding from an NSF supplement and we were in 18 different states. Our third year, there was an article about the project in the L.A. Times, and we ended up with 800 participants in 43 different states, and we got a really lot of valuable information and really good feedback. That was the year of COVID, and we heard from people that having a project like that to work on with their children was great. We would give people seeds for different types of ground cherry and golden berry. They would grow them in their gardens and give us feedback through an online database.

SG: Q8: Did you do this community science projects in schools?

Yes, there were some organizations that we gave seeds to for schools. Prior to this community science project, I was on the tomato genome sequencing project and part of my responsibility was to develop outreach programs. One of my outreach programs was specifically focused on kindergarten through elementary school.

It was called the Solanaceae Family Goes to School. The Solanaceae is a very diverse group of plant species with tomato, eggplant, and pepper. I got funding from the National Science Foundation and I would go to our one of our local supermarkets and get as many different types of Solanaceae as I could get: tomatoes, different types of eggplants, and I would take them to the schools to try these different species of fruits and vegetables.

These species, they look different, but they’re related, so they went to a family reunion. We went to the local craft stores and got hats, eyes, hair, and all these crazy things. The kids would make these little creatures out of tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes and it was a lot of fun. We gave them educational type materials to take home so their parents could see what they did.

AM: Thank you so much for sharing. That’s a really unique project and I see so many parallels between the Facilities Project Crafts and then PlantGENE as far as establishing these networks, getting the community involvement, getting the community feedback is really driving these networks and the research. Excited to see you PlantGENE grow as well.

Joyce, I just want to thank you for being here and just doing such great work with planting. It’s been encouraging to see the new generation of scientists get involved and learn about transformation. I’m really glad to be part of this network and looking forward to what comes next.

JVE: Thank you again for inviting me. It’s been an honor. I think this is great and looking forward to hearing from the really interesting people that will be interviewed.