The Scientist: Silvia Proietti

­Silvia Proietti got a Marie Curie fellowship to perform a post-doc at Plant-Microbe Interactions at Utrecht University in 2013. She recently returned to her home country and is now a senior post-doc and lecturer in Biochemistry and Bioinformatics at the University of Tuscia, Italy. There, she will start her own research line.

 What made you decide to go into research?

I like to answer quoting Albert Einstein: “The process of scientific discovery is, in effect, a continual flight from wonder”. Ever since I was a child, I found it exciting to be outdoors admiring the scenery, trying to learn as much as I could about the things around me. When I was in high school I was impressed when learning that the tiny cells we are all made off, have very intricate and complex machinery inside of them. This drove me to choose to study molecular biology at university. At university, I saw that new things were discovered all the time. This made me want to be part of the action, to make a contribution that would improve our world. Ever since then, I cannot think of anything else I would rather do than doing science.

What is your area of study?

I study the cross-talk between plant defense hormone signaling pathways. Like humans, plants make hormones that function in many plant processes, such as development and immunity. Cross-talk between these hormones allows different hormone signaling pathways to inhibit or activate each other, allowing a plant to flexibly tailor its adaptive response to a variety of environmental cues. As mentioned, I study this crosstalk in the context of a plant’s response to pathogen attack. The plant defense hormones salicylic acid, abscisic acid and jasmonic acid play a central role in the regulation of plant immune responses against these attacks. My current interest is to understand the effect of salicylic acid and abscisic acid on the jasmonic acid pathway and to discover the regulators that mediate this effect. I believe that my results will not only provide novel knowledge about plant immunity, but will also help to develop new resistant crops by rewiring hormonal signaling pathways.

What is the result that you are most proud of so far?

After having performed a very complex and tough bioinformatics analysis, I found new potential regulators of the hormone crosstalk that I’m studying. Later on, I was able to show that these regulators are involved in plant defense against pathogens and pests. This proved to me that it will be valuable to pursue my studies on their mechanism of action. Moreover, thinking about my previous research focus, I’m proud to have characterized a plant defense protein that has a strong activity against plant and human fungal diseases. This defense protein could open new doors for using plant proteins in the medical field.

What is the hardest thing about being a researcher?

I think one of the hardest  things in science is accepting that a lot of research takes a very long time before you make progress towards understanding how things work. It is not unusual that years and years of work have to be done before the results can be published. This can cause some frustration and demotivation! In addition, as a researcher working at a university you have to deal with the fact that in academia there are mostly temporary contracts. Unfortunately, during my career I have seen many excellent scientists who have been forced out of the field because of a lack of funding or stability. This is very sad.

What do you enjoy most about doing research?

The basics of doing research are very simple. You think outside the box about something of which we do not know how it works. Then, you can ask a simple question about this something, think of a way to answer it, and perform experiments to find out if your theory is right or wrong. Both this seemingly easy and logical basis, and everything else that comes in between or around it, is exciting and makes me love to be a researcher. The idea that my research can impact the current knowledge in a significant way, in addition to being useful for the entire society is a good motivation to continue doing this job in the best way that I can. Moreover, sharing ideas, discussing results and building collaborations with other researchers, thereby often getting in contact with other cultures, also enriches my personal life.

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