The Bayer Science & Education Foundation promotes top research and junior talents. Molecular biologist Dr. Steven Spoel won the 2013 Early Excellence in Science Award for his research into the genetic regulation of the plant immune system. His work on plants may even be transferable to cancer research.
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Many important discoveries in the life sciences are first made on plants and later applied to humans, which may also be the case with the work of Dr. Steven Spoel. The 34-year-old Dutchman is currently a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Molecular Plant Sciences. Spoel has specialized in the immune system of plants or, more accurately, one puzzle piece of it, because the plant defense system is a complex structure of regulator genes. “I’m interested in how plant cells detect and respond to environmental changes,” Spoel says. His work centers on plant responses to pathogen infestation. Whether a plant grows and survives depends on numerous factors. In addition to natural enemies, such as insects and bacteria, growth is influenced by the nutrient and water supply, and by high and low temperatures.
I’m interested in how plant cells detect and respond to environmental changes,
Gene regulators control which genes are active and transcribed in a cell's DNA, and which are not, because every cell in the human body produces exactly those genes (and thus also cell parts) that are important for its individual function. For example, a skin cell that is becoming calloused produces keratin, a structural protein that also lends strength to hair and nails and can protect the body from harmful environmental influences. A muscle cell, in contrast, would have no use for this protein. It typically expresses myosin instead, a motor protein that plays a role in the muscle contraction mechanism.
Researchers are rapidly learning more about the interplay between the environment and the plant immune system, and in the process expanding their options for arming plants against adverse conditions. “This is a very critical goal if we want to feed the growing global population. Furthermore, the importance of utilizing plants as a source of energy or as drug producers is likewise on the rise,” Spoel explains. In addition to making plants more resistant and crop yields more stable, Spoel hopes his research will have another effect: “On a cellular level, there are several similarities between the plant and human immune systems. Our research may also uncover possibilities for new cancer treatments.” In recognition of his work, Spoel won the 2013 Early Excellence in Science Award, funded by the Bayer Science & Education Foundation. The puzzle piece he concentrates on in his research is salicylic acid. This starting component for acetylsalicylic acid, the active ingredient in Aspirin™, is part of a plant’s system of defense against harmful organisms.
Help against Pathogens: Salicylic Acid Induces Gene Expression and Activates the Immune System
“We know that the plant immune system can switch on specific gene groups to fight pathogens,” Spoel explains. Salicylic acid helps it correctly transcribe information in the DNA and switch on the genes required for defense. “Many of these molecular mechanisms in which salicylic acid alters genes exist in the cells of both man and animals,” he continues. Errors in this sensitive network have an impact on the metabolism of the entire organism, potentially leading to faulty immune system reactions and the development of disease. “We need to understand in greater detail what effect salicylic acid and other factors have on the finely balanced regulation system, and how we can influence these effects,” Spoel says.
Spoel became fascinated with the immune system activator while working on his dissertation at Duke University in North Carolina, USA. He had previously completed his undergraduate studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Spoel knew at a young age that he wanted to dedicate his career to plants. His parents gave him and his siblings a corner of the yard to plant seeds and to water, fertilize and observe the growing plants. “Within a short time, I had taken over my siblings’ plots,” Spoel remembers. To compensate for all the hard work, the biologist likes to practice judo, a sport he has been involved in since he was five. Spoel also participates every year in the Glasgow half marathon. This stamina and perseverance could very well reward him with a promising career – and new discoveries in cancer research as well.
Veterinarian in Namibia
What draws you time and time again to Africa?
Ever since we took a family vacation there, I have been fascinated by the landscape and animal world of Africa. Between high school graduation and college, I spent nine months working for a chimpanzee protection project, observing lions for a research project and volunteering for whale and dolphin research. I also spent all my semester breaks in Africa.
How did you benefit from the internship?
I examined and x-rayed animals, and assisted with ultrasound examinations. I was even allowed to operate. If I can add to this experience by working with wild animals, then hopefully I can be accepted into the Wild Animal Health program in London.
Commitment to Nepal
Since receiving her bachelor’s degree, physical therapist Alexandra Hummel has been living for her career. With the help of a Hermann Strenger scholarship , she financed an internship at a clinic in Nepal. “Physical therapy is virtually non-existent in Nepal,” she relates. She was attracted to Nepal by “the high mountains and because you encounter medical cases there that you normally do not see in Europe.” After volunteering and going for her master’s degree in physical therapy, Hummel says she would like to work in clinical research: “Using efficacy studies, we can determine which treatments really help.” Health insurance companies frequently request this kind of scientific evidence.
Bayer Fellowship Programm
The Bayer Science & Education Foundation supports talented young individuals in Germany and other countries in achieving special study and career goals with the help of tailored scholarship programs. The Herbert Strenger scholarships are aimed at commercial, science/?technical and health care trainees who are looking to gain some initial professional experience abroad.
Early Excellence in Science Award
First established in 2009, the international Bayer Early Excellence in Science Award recognizes talented young scientists in the early stages of their academic careers. An independent expert jury selects three prizewinners in the categories Biology, Chemistry and Materials. Criteria include the originality of the research, as well as the quality and significance of the results. The awards are worth EUR 10,000 each. The other awards in 2013 went to the chemist Dr. Abigail Doyle of Princeton University and Dr. Javier Fernandez of Harvard University in Boston. Doyle developed a method for the low-impact and efficient incorporation of fluorine in organic molecules. In the future, this will make it possible to synthesize substances with unique, previously unknown properties. Fernandez discovered a new material called “shrilk.” It displays strength and toughness similar to that of aluminum, but weighs only half as much, is biodegradable, suitable for complex molding processes and can be produced at low cost. The material has potential for use in numerous applications, including packaging and medicine.
The Correct Way to Apply
The Bayer Science & Education Foundation offers a customized Fellowship Program to enable talented young scientists from Germany and abroad to pursue specific study and career projects.
Who can apply?
Support is awarded to the following individuals:
- Applicants from Germany who want to pursue a particular study or educational project abroad, and
- Applicants from abroad seeking to pursue a project in Germany. Applicants should have good grades at school and university and, most importantly, a pioneering spirit and a personal project that they would like to implement in partnership with the Bayer Foundation.
What subject areas are supported?
- Otto Bayer scholarships are intended for students in the natural and engineering sciences.
- Carl Duisberg scholarships support students of human and veterinary medicine.
- Jeff Schell scholarships are for students of green genetic engineering, agronomy and plant sciences.
- Kurt Hansen scholarships are awarded to students training to teach natural sciences.
- Hermann Strenger scholarships are intended for apprentices and young people in non-academic professions involved in engineering, natural sciences and HealthCare and in commercial positions.
What activities are eligible for support? And for how long?
Internships, training courses, pharmaceutical experience, a semester abroad, research projects, diploma and master’s dissertations and doctoral projects. Regular support for studies in Germany and support for projects that have already been concluded cannot be given. The Foundation provides support for up to one year.
How much financial support is provided?
The support provided should cover living expenses, traveling expenses and costs associated with the project. Each applicant can submit a personalized cost schedule which the scientific committee uses as the basis for its decision.
How can applications be submitted?
Applications can be submitted online. It is vital for the following to be attached to the application: passport photo, evidence of linguistic ability and letter of confirmation from the receiving institution abroad, and certificates of education. The current round of applications for scholarships for students and apprentices runs from June 1, 2014 to July 15, 2014.
Where is further information available?
The Bayer Cares Foundation supports social innovation, for example at the interface between patients and the health care sector. A student initiative called “What have I got?” won the Audience Prize in the 2014 Aspirin Social Award and placed second overall. It is a free service that translates medical terms into comprehensible, everyday language.
Read Part 2 “Doctor’s Office Interpreters“