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Joanne Chory

Acclaimed biologist fosters next generation of women in science

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Joanne Chory, a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, discovered plants use steroids as hormones and studies how they respond to light in their environment.

While Joanne Chory works to offset the effects of climate change through plant research, she’s also fostering the next generation of scientists and helping women become more visible in the field.

Chory is a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where she directs the Plant Biology Laboratory.

Her legacy is the 100 people she has trained over the years, many of whom are running their own labs and are leaders in the field.

Her lab discovered that plants use steroids as hormones and is working to identify how plants respond to light in their environment.

“Plants read everything in light. They can tell what time of year it is by looking at the photo period -- the length of the day versus the night,” Chory said. “It knows when spring is coming because the days are getting longer -- and it also looks at temperature and incorporates that.”

Knowing how plants respond to their environment can help as the population continues to grow and plants disappear.

“That is a real issue -- how are we going to feed everybody? That, for me, is the main reason why I want to be in plants right now,” Chory said. “People are interested in diseases that kill people -- but if you can’t feed people, there’s going to be political instability and a lot of bad stuff that’s already happening in the Middle East.”

There are about 7 billion people on the planet and that’s expected to rise to 9.5 billion by 2050. Plants play a role in food, fuel, clothes and feed for animals.

“The way we farm now is a real issue. We love destroying topsoil and the climate is changing, and when the climate changes, if you’re a farmer you need to plant different seeds,” Chory said. “How to help them predict which seeds to plant is something that I would be really interested in helping out with.”

The number of plants declines when they are planted close together in agricultural fields. They grow taller to escape competition for light. Chory wants to understand the process to “beat the plant at its own survival strategy” and cause it to put energy into producing instead of competing for light.

One weed has shaped most of her career: Arabidopsis thaliana. She began studying it as a model to study molecular genetics. It has a short life cycle -- a seed make its progeny seed in just six weeks.

“They’re genetically identical to the mother, pretty much. That allows you to get a lot of material even though the plant is little,” Chory said. “It allows you to do a lot of genetic experiments because the life cycle is short and you have all of these genetically identical progenies.”

Chory took a risk with Arabidopsis thaliana. If it didn’t take off, she may not have had the career she has today. She spent three years trying to transform Arabidopsis -- and she finally did.

“My love’s been working on that area the whole time I’ve been here. It’s a complicated area -- it turns out there are a lot of genes involved in how a plant responds to light,” Chory said.

Entering the field when she did was slightly easier than for those before and after her -- the women before her paved the way for her generation of female scientists, and she had the benefit of having studied Arabidopsis thaliana.

But the biases are still there, she said.

A Women in Science program was initiated in the past year to bring women in the business community together with women scientists to generate interest in what they do at Salk.

“My advice to young women is always the same: Just keep going and bombarding them with how excited you are with science and the lab. After a while, they just look at you like a scientist, not like a young woman,” Chory said.

She said it’s important to be visible by staying involved and volunteering to speak at seminars -- “because visible people get awards, get promotions, get bigger salaries.”

Chory is originally from Massachusetts. She completed her bachelor’s degree in biology from Oberlin College in Ohio, where she credits a professor for her excitement about microbiology.

She earned her doctorate in microbiology from the University of Illinois and conducted post doctoral research at Harvard Medical School before coming to Salk in 1988. She was the first investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute whose studies focused on plants. She is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Science, the German National Academy of Sciences (Leopoldina), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Chory is a foreign member of the Royal Society of London, a foreign associate of the French Academy of Sciences, and an associate member of EMBO.

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