Category Archives: Meet the Plant Biologists

Meet the Plant Biologists: Marcelle Johnson

Marcelle was born in South Africa and grew up in Johannesburg.  She has a Bachelor of Science Honours in Ecology, Enviroment and Conservation from the University of Witwatersrand. The focus of her major was in plant stress physiology, specifically in cold tolerance of two indigenous species in South Africa. Besides being my friend and classmate, she also happens to be my neighbor, so we met up a days ago close to Rackarberget.

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Picture by Hernán Capador

Hernán Capador: Marcelle, why did you decide to study Plant Biology at SLU?

Marcelle Jhonsson: I first heard of Sweden as a place to study when I was finishing my Honours. My home university has a mailing network for postgraduate studies, and the Swedish embassy had sent a call saying that there were scholarships for South African students. And I thought, OK, this is a nice goal for me to try next year. So I spent the whole year working about it and looking it up. It became my goal: finish my Honours, get high grades and come to Sweden. I also looked for the top programs in Plant Sciences in Europe. I saw Ghent, Wageningen and SLU. So I chose SLU mainly because it has this really interesting master, and also scholarship opportunities. Also the collaboration they have between Uppsala University, Stockholm University and SLU seemed really good to me, because each of them has different strong points within plant biology. After being admitted to the program I was very fortunate enough to get both a tuition fees scholarship from SLU and the scholarship from the Swedish Institute to cover my other expenses.

H.C.: Tell me more about the Swedish Institute scholarship, because I know you have been involved in some activities because of it…

M.J.: I applied to the Scholarship, with an application focused on sustainability and innovation. Hence, I looked at the program I applied for and thought about some kind of socio-economic issue that society faces and how could I relate what I am studying to solve that.  So I thought about plant biology and all the biotechnological applications it had, which could extent to food security, agricultural production, and plant based products. In the application I also mentioned how I had taken part in societies in my home university, which showed my leadership skills, but also that I was actually engaged within the environment I was living in, and this is really important in an application. Besides being academically excellent, of course.

The Scholarship is great, because I became part of what is known as the Swedish Institute Network for Future Global Leaders. This is meant to be a network of people who have demonstrated leadership skills through the application, and the main aim of it is to connect people to one another, then there will be leaders constantly communicating and hopefully in that communication they should be able to solve some of the issues that we face in the world today. I am part of the Uppsala local network and I have met many great people. This has given me a different perspective and opened my mind a lot more, because now I know about many regional topics that we as society are facing.

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Picture by Hernán Capador

H.C.:Talking about regional topics, tell me how it is to be a female scientist in South Africa?

M.J.: I definitely think that there needs to be more women in science. I was fortunate enough that during my university career I had a lot of female scientists who were teaching me and who I have taken as role models, especially both my supervisors from my Honours thesis. They really encouraged me to pursue master studies and probably a PhD and also to be confident in my skills.  I think nowadays there is definitely an environment in which women are encouraging each other, but I do think that we face a problem because the society we live in is divided along socio-economic lines, and this might make it difficult for people to relate to one another and their circumstances. That is why, in my opinon it is a big step to be even a female professional in South Africa.

I know Marcelle will be a high profile scientist and a role model for other South African women. She likes taking a lot of pictures and is the best hashtagger I know so far, so find her on Instagram and Twitter as @marsally498 



Meet the Plant Biologists: Pernilla Elander

Pernilla is one of the MSc. students in Plant Biology. She is from Sweden and obtained her bachelor in biotechnology from SLU. Besides studying, she also teaches about sustainable agriculture and biotechnology to high school students! We met in campus for Fika one day before she left to United States to pursue her master’s thesis (How awesome is that, huh!?).

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Picture by Hernán Capador

Hernán Capador: Dear Pernilla, why did you choose to study the MSc. in Plant Biology at SLU?

Pernilla Elander: I already have been working quite a lot in the Plant Biology department here at SLU, so it was quite natural that I wanted to stay here. Additionally there is really good science, and I am interested in agriculture, so Plant Biology was pretty close to that. Also it is really interesting the collaboration between Uppsala University, Stockholm University, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU),  because it opens up the possibility to getting to know more people and also, there is lot of international students, so it is more funny.

H.C.: Hehehe, indeed! But then, why are you interested in agriculture?

P.E.: My family is an agriculture family, and I’ve been working in farms as well. Although there is no much struggle in Sweden right now, in the future there is going to be struggle in the whole world, so it feels like it is possible for me to save the world!

H.C.: Talking about the world, I know you are going abroad! Tell me more about what will you do in the United States.

P.E.: At the moment I really don’t know! (laughter) because we had to change my initial plan, but overall my focus there will be learning new methods, and get to know people there to have contacts for the future. Since I already have a PhD project here in Sweden –I’m a lucky bastard I know, hehehe- it is not that important for me that the master thesis turns really really good, instead is better for me to have a nice platform for my PhD. But in any case, the big project is called “Oil crops for the future” and it’s a collaboration between 4 or 5 universities, and Nebraska is part of it. My group here at SLU works on autophagy and programmed cell death. They’ve found that when they upregulate those functions, some crops have an increased yield. That is of course very important for the future! In fact, these plants also seem to be resistant to environmental stress, but upon this I will probably work in during my PhD. In US they are looking for different kind of lipids in plants and maybe how to transfer genes form plant to plant to produce other kinds of lipids that could be used for industry. Also very important for the future!

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Picture by Hernán Capador

 H.C.: That is very cool! I saw a few days ago on your Instagram profile that you dislike organic agriculture. How come?

I think the idea is very good, but now at least in Sweden it has become such a huge trend and people tend to just think the easy way: “If I buy organic then it is the best solution for the environment and for myself”. But that is not the complete truth about it, especially in Sweden where we are quite in front of all the agriculture research compared to other European countries, and worldwide. We are already very thoughtful about the environment and agriculture is already very sustainable as it is, so saying that Swedish conventional agriculture is not good for the environment is lying. Actually, sometimes organic agriculture is less good than the conventional, so I would like kind of take away the organic label on everything and just push all agriculture to a more sustainable practice instead.

I am sure Pernilla is going to do it great in US and will collaborate to save the world in the future! She also told me that she might start using Instagram more often, so follow her adventures in @pernillaelander