Plant Physiologist Helen Stafford leaves Reed College $8M

216_stafford.jpegApplause for Plant Physiologist Helen Stafford who bequeathed an astonishing $8M to Reed College in her will. As a woman scientist in the 1950s, Stafford was ineligible for many jobs. Reed College, not deterred by her sex, offered her a position. She went on to establish a successful career and inspired many young scientists. Here is a short story of how she influenced my career.

The windowless room, dank an dark, was not an obvious place for inspiration. I took notes, wondering if I would be able to glean anything meaningful from Professor Helen Stafford’s (1922-2011) meandering lecture. I was skeptical. After all, this was the same teacher who, annoyed with our choice of vegetarianism, had told us that “plants have feelings, too”.

But what I learned that day, 33 years ago, would trigger a grand curiosity about the natural world and draw me into the greatest scientific puzzle of my career.

Helen informed us that human language is not the only way that species communicate. Plants form intimate associations with fungi and bacteria, which allow them to thrive in stressful environments. Establishment and maintenance of the relationship depends on the passing and receiving of coded information between partners. She also told us that plants can only defend themselves against microbes that they can sense.

This interspecies communication is not restricted to plants and microbes. The human intestine is home to diverse bacteria, allowing us to harvest nutrients that would otherwise be inaccessible. The human immunodeficiency virus chooses for its target only those of us that carry a specific receptor, decorated in a particular way.

All these interactions dramatically affect human health and farm productivity.

I was hooked.

To read the rest of the story on the Tree of Life blog, click here.

Pamela Ronald

Written by Pamela Ronald

Pamela Ronald is Professor of Plant Pathology and Chair of the Plant Genomics Program at the University of California, Davis, where she studies the role that genes play in a plant’s response to its environment. With her husband, she co-wrote Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. Dr. Ronald was one of the co-founders of Biology Fortified.
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