Standing in the bright blaze of the sun, fields of green were extending from my chest in all directions. Heart skipping beat, the sound of my matched breathing joined a music of leaves revealed with the wind. Accompanying the taste and scent of sunscreen, sweat, and earth being torn and displaced by a shovel, particles of everything were shifting and traveling — in and through the air, high and deep, into the crevices and pores of the soil, roaming roots, blades of grass, the sampling equipment at my side, my skin, lungs, veins. Sensations of obliteration were overwhelming my system, all knowing momentarily lost in revelatory, dynamic motion.
While conducting field work in 108°F weather might have had something to do with it, instances like this — of feeling so caught up and dissolved in the present — have occurred throughout my life. As paralyzing as they can be, these experiences also bestow realizations that the possibilities and actualities of what is — and thus, what was and can be — are so much greater than what I routinely operate from.
Throughout history, we have sought to better understand the great abstractions we come up against and are part of, developing tools, methodologies, and frameworks to describe and embrace the varied nature of reality. Out of that which has become our science, our explorations and observations actually point to how much lives in the spaces of the unknown, of questioning, of constant transformation; our universe and life being infinitely more strange, agape, and mysterious than fleeting glance, facts for memorization in heavy textbooks, and rigid, antiquated pillars of society may convey.
It is out of a desire to further walk the edge of what we know, perceive, and dare to imagine and create that I am a scientist, a student, and an advocate. In light of the liberating understandings and opportunities I have been provided, I ultimately seek to better see, appreciate, celebrate, and serve others, in all of our interdependent otherness.
What follows are several of the inquiries and efforts that make up my life.
I am a fourth year graduate student in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology and the laboratory of Dr. Devin Coleman-Derr, and I have the great honor and delight to study what I believe are incredibly awe-inspiring expressions of life: plants and the microscopic organisms that are intimately associated with them.
I am endlessly curious about these photosynthetic and hidden wonders and how they play such significant roles in ecosystem functioning, climate, civilization, wellbeing, and more. In connection with plants, numerous tiny life forms — from bacteria and fungi to viruses and more — impact what nutrients are available in the soil, the acquisition of water, stress tolerance, disease occurrence, and more. Plants and the relationships they form with microbes speak to how vital community can be in survival, growth, and overcoming adversity, and I am particularly drawn to better understanding what contributes to resilience and overall community creation and maintenance.
With our efforts to describe how plant microbiomes are formed, modulated, and function, my labmates and I seek to help improve agricultural production and promote food security amidst increasing population levels across the globe and predictions that challenges due to climate change will intensify in coming decades.
I am currently looking into how various environmental and host factors influence the belowground communities of various crops, including wheat and sorghum (a lesser-known but hearty plant, used as food, animal feed, and a biofuel feedstock).
On the environmental side, I work in collaboration with Dr. Jeffrey Mitchell in California’s Central Valley to determine how farming practices impact sorghum’s microbiome. I am profiling both the composition and activity of the microbes found in roots and the surrounding soil when sorghum is grown in fields managed with cover-cropping and conservation and standard tilling regimes. The tilling of soil has important implications for carbon sequestration, soil erosion and runoff, water infiltration, plant productivity, and labor and production costs, and it is so rewarding and exciting to delve deeper into some of the ways in which both plants and humans influence microbial communities, to then relate this back to crop yield and soil health.
I am also investigating the separate and combined impacts of heat and drought stress on sorghum’s microbiome. Our lab has recently shown that certain bacteria strongly associate with field-grown sorghum under drought conditions, and these microbes may contribute to plant stress tolerance. Under controlled conditions in growth chambers, undergraduate Sarah Bui and I are examining what patterns occur in who plants recruit when experiencing these environmental stresses.
On the host side, I explore how domestication and the duplication of a plant’s entire genome impacts the makeup of the microbiome in wheat. Being fascinated by how plants evolve and adapt to different conditions and constraints, I love how I can consider plant means of communication with this work.
Throughout the journey of surveying these associations between plant and microbes, I am continually struck with gratitude for the communities I am part of and their immense contributions to my academic, professional, and personal growth. In such a supportive and inspiring environment, I am learning so much about leadership, communication, mentoring, development, embracing the uncomfortable, and venturing evermore deeper into the questions that call.
Having benefited tremendously from the engagement and efforts of countless others, I aspire to give back and help manifest a better, more empowering and flourishing future. In addition to my research and mentoring, I am involved in several outreach efforts, including the Graduate Assembly, the CLEAR Project (Communication, Literacy & Education for Agricultural Research), Berkeley’s oSTEM chapter (out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), Bay Area Scientists in Schools, and the creation of a blog, Spirited Science.
Heidi M.-L. Wipf is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the laboratory of Devin Coleman-Derr and the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2015 with a B.S. in Biological Sciences and a B.A. in Environmental Studies, they joined UC Berkeley to further engage with research, education, mentoring, and advocacy work.