Plant science relationship growing across the Atlantic

Rachael DeTar, Alexander Aleman, and Stanislav Kopriva.WSU’s growing collaboration with Germany’s interdisciplinary Cluster of Excellence on Plant Sciences (CEPLAS) is adding a global perspective to the University’s work to advance agricultural science and develop sustainable methods of food production.

Earlier this summer, a WSU delegation of seven graduate students attended the annual International CEPLAS Summer School near Cologne and brought home awards for best oral and best poster presentations.

Five WSU faculty also presented their work during the week‑long event and continued discussions to establish research interactions that will benefit faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, and science in general on both sides of the Atlantic.

“In Germany, they do a lot of great basic research,” said Cynthia Gleason, a WSU assistant professor of plant pathology who started her faculty career as a junior professor at the University of Göttingen before coming to the U.S. “But they often don’t have the space to translate that work into field research. That’s where land‑grant universities in the U.S. can provide a tremendous benefit. If we can work with European scientists to convert their efforts into something that helps farmers both here and in Germany, then everyone wins.”

The WSU representatives aim to further increase the interactions between plant scientists here and in Germany.

“The more we widen our outreach, and broaden the perspectives of our faculty and students, the more this benefits the research in this vital area. Additionally, it improves WSU’s international visibility and standing,” said Hans‑Henning Kunz, an assistant professor of biological sciences.

Changing lives
Kunz, who earned his botany Ph.D. at the University of Cologne, has sent WSU undergraduates to Germany on research internships and accepted graduate students from Germany into his research program at WSU.

“These events can turn the right knobs in a student’s brain to motivate them towards pursuing unexpected, highly interesting, careers,” Kunz said.

Alex Alleman was part of the group of WSU Ph.D. students who attended the CEPLAS Summer School. He won the Best Poster award for his presentation on biological nitrogen fixation.

“It was so amazing to meet these incredibly important people in my field,” said Alleman, a fourth‑year Ph.D. student in molecular plant sciences. “I got great feedback on my work, was able to spend time with some of the leading minds in plant science, and connect with students and faculty from both German and U.S. institutions.”

“CEPLAS researchers are developing a lot of new techniques,” said Alleman, who studies under John Peters in the WSU Institute of Biological Chemistry. “If we have a specific question, perhaps about metabolism in our model organism, now we can easily contact them to learn about their methods and potentially advance our work collaboratively.”

Rachael DeTar, a Ph.D. candidate studying with Kunz, won the oral presentation award for her talk based on her dissertation research into the physiological and biological processes that drive and regulate photosynthesis and nutrient assimilation.

Senior science connections
WSU faculty representatives included Scot Hulbert, CAHNRS associate dean of research, John Peters, director of the Institute of Biological Chemistry (IBC), Hanjo Hellmann, professor in the School of Biological Sciences (SBS), and Helmut Kirchhoff, IBC professor, with a few others involved that couldn’t attend the Summer School.

The CEPLAS consortium includes Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, the University of Cologne, the Max Planck Institute for Breeding Research in Cologne, and Forschungszentrum Jülich.

Gleason said there are plans for CEPLAS scientists to visit the U.S. next year to continue building and strengthening the connection.

Drive to 25
International collaborations advance WSU on its Drive to 25 by supporting undergraduate research, graduate student placement, and global outreach.

Top photo: Award winners Rachael DeTar, left, from the Kunz Lab, and Alexander Aleman, right, from the Peters lab, with Stanislav Kopriva from the University of Cologne.

By Scott Weybright, College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, for WSU Insider.