Interview with Caroline Dean

The biologist on how a box of tulip bulbs encouraged her to research plants and why women must expand their comfort zone 

June 7, 2018
Caroline Dean

Dame Caroline Dean is a professor and project leader for cell and developmental biology at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, where she leads a team of 11 scientists. Her research investigates the molecular controls used by plants to judge when to flower. She has won a string of awards and accolades throughout her career: she was appointed a dame in 2016 for services to plant science research and women in science, and won the Royal Society’s Darwin Medal in the same year. Last year, she was the European winner of the L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science prize. In March, she was awarded a Royal Society research professorship.

Where and when were you born?
Sale, Cheshire, April 1957.

How has this shaped you?
Having two brothers made me learn how to argue for what I wanted at an early age.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was studious but open-minded and curious. I knew that I had to enjoy what I was studying in order to succeed. I changed my undergraduate degree and university [to study biology at the University of York] for this exact reason.

Why did you decide to study biology, and plants specifically?
I grew up in the north of England and enjoyed the distinct seasons, so when I went as a postdoc to California, I missed the clear seasonal transitions. In California, I bought some tulip bulbs, and the person in the shop said to me: “Put them in the fridge for six weeks.” I was so struck by the comment that I went and read about why I would put them in the fridge, and realised that [tulips] actually need the cold to bloom. That got me thinking generally about how plants use seasonal cues to time their development.

You won the 2018 L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science award for your research on how plants adapt to their surroundings and to climate change. What were your main findings, and what impact do you hope the research will have?
At a base level, plants change from growth mode to flowering mode according to signals they receive from their environment. We have worked to understand how the memory of this signal is retained by the plant’s cells, and we have come to discover that all major strands of our research were converging on the regulation of just one gene – “Flowering Locus C” – and therefore, what an important gene that was in the regulation of plant flowering time. To a certain extent, this research helps us to understand implications on crop production and the effects of climate change on the yield. The crop varieties that we grow on a large commercial scale are unlikely to cope well with the predicted future extreme temperature fluctuations. Commercially, we have seen the consequences of such extremes – last winter, the unusually cold temperatures in the south of Spain triggered poor broccoli production. This led to a severe shortage in the supermarkets around Europe.

You have been described as an ambassador for women in science. Do you agree with that title, and how do you think more women can be encouraged to become scientists?
Regardless of the title, I think it is important to represent female scientists in a way that gives back to the next generation – that’s [why] programmes such as the L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science [initiative] are so important. I encourage women to continually expand their comfort zone so that at those key moments when a choice needs to be made, an opinion shared or a direction taken, they always persevere.

Do you think your gender has had an impact on your experience as a scientist?
I have noticed that, in difficult situations, men tend to pursue and persevere whereas women are more likely to step back, which is one of the reasons men advance in their careers quicker than their female counterparts. It’s important to extend your comfort zone and to push yourself even when it would be easier to back down. Celebrating female scientists in the way L’Oréal and Unesco do helps to drive home the message of equality and change for the scientific community.

All nine of last year’s Nobel prizes in science were awarded to men. Do you think the gender imbalance tarnishes the award?
No, it does not tarnish the award – they were for brilliant science to brilliant scientists. We just need more women in science so we can start to win them more often.

Much of your research has involved you working in a lab. Do you enjoy time alone?
I work with an extraordinary team who spur me on to continue my research. I am never alone in the lab, just when I am travelling to give seminars. That time is useful to reflect on the bigger questions we are tackling.

Have you had a eureka moment?
In the scope of this research, my eureka moment was when I realised that all the questions I had started to answer in my own independent laboratory all converged on the regulation of just one gene – “Flowering Locus C”.

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?
Teaching in schools.

What brings you comfort?
My family and relaxing at home in my garden.

What saddens you?
When young women get disheartened by research.

Tell us about someone you admire.
I admire resilient people who are not put off by adversity – they just brush themselves down and get on with life.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Jon Friedland is to become deputy -principal (research and enterprise) at St George’s, University of London. Professor Friedland, an expert in tuberculosis and infectious diseases, will join the medical school in September from Imperial College London. Professor Friedland’s current scientific team will move with him so he can continue his research. Professor Friedland said that he was looking forward to returning to St George’s, where he completed his PhD. “It is an exciting time in the development of the university, with a fresh leadership team, a new strategy in place and huge potential that we need to realise,” he said.

Alison Honour has been named pro vice‑chancellor and executive dean of the Faculty of Arts, Design and Media at Birmingham City University. Professor Honour, currently dean of De Montfort University’s Faculty of Arts, Design and Humanities, trained as a fine artist before moving into higher education, including a decade at Oxford Brookes University. Birmingham City has “an outstanding reputation for producing creative arts graduates”, she said. “The facilities…are as good as any you will find in industry, and I can’t wait to start working with the talented staff and students whose work has already impressed me hugely.”

Ken Badcock has been appointed the new senior vice-principal (academic strategy, partnerships and resources) at Royal Holloway, University of London. He joins from the University of Liverpool, where he has been executive pro vice-chancellor (science and engineering) since 2013.

Liz Jolly is to become the new chief librarian at the British Library. She is currently director of Teesside University’s Student and Library Services, having previously served as its director of library and information services.

Karla Pollmann is to become the dean of the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Arts from September. She is currently professor of Classics and head of the School of Humanities at the University of Reading.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments