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Dr Steven Spoel

University Research Fellow
University of Edinburgh

Tell us about your research and what inspired you to go into that field
My interest in plants was established at an early age as my parents gave me and my siblings small plots in the garden to take care of: I quickly took over my sibling's plots! My laboratory now studies how plants defend themselves against attack by pathogens that can cause devastation to food crops. These studies help us understand how plant and animal cells can better survive stresses (e.g. pathogen attack) by orchestrating dramatic reprogramming of gene expression to favour defence responses over normal cellular household functions. 

What attracted you to apply for the University Research Fellowship (URF)?
After completing a postdoctoral fellowship I was determined to continue developing an independent research line. The long-term research independence that a URF provides presented an excellent opportunity to do this. Also, URFs are surrounded by the UK's leading world-class researchers that impact not only the research landscape but also science policy, making this a highly attractive fellowship scheme.   

What support and additional opportunities has the URF provided you?
 
The URF has provided me with the freedom and financial support to pursue both blue-skies and applied research. 

Having attended the Innovation and the Business of Science courses, I have gained a better understanding of the science economy, and improved my managerial and leadership skills. This has benefitted my involvement in both academic and industrial committees and consortia, as well as in leading my own team. The hands-on approaches to improve these professional skills makes the courses particularly useful and memorable. 

How have your research plans been influenced by participation in this scheme?
This Fellowship has allowed me to set up an independent research group with a predominantly blue-skies research focus. As plant research is increasingly becoming an industrial focus, blue-skies academic plant science is under significant funding pressure. The final years of my URF partially alleviate this pressure by allowing us the freedom to move several of our key fundamental findings from plant cells into cell types that are considered more conventional models in biomedical sciences. Without URF funding this journey into more interdisciplinary science would be much more difficult to achieve.

What impact will your research have in the future? 
Human activities increasingly impose constraints on agriculture resulting in crops having to face a multitude of abiotic and biotic stresses. Consequently, crops either engage in a lengthy and costly battle against disease or succumb under disease pressure, both of which result in severely reduced crop yield and threaten future food security. A reduction in marketable crop yields cost the UK and global economies billions every year.

Our research aims to understand how plant cells respond to stresses by reprogramming the expression of thousands of genes to prioritise defence responses over normal cellular household functions. This will offer novel avenues for exploration of methods that significantly increase crop yields under human-imposed agricultural constraints.

Furthermore, the fundamental principles that underpin cellular reprogramming in plants are conserved in other organisms, including humans and animals. By working with different model organisms we are now crossing our impact over into the biomedical sector to ultimately aid the design of new medicines and therapies that will improve quality of life and promote healthy ageing of the wider public.