An Interview with an outstanding early career scientist, Dr. Philippa Borrill

Interview conducted and written by Modesta Abugu

Dr. Philippa Borrill is a lecturer in Plant Biology at the University of Birmingham (UK). She carried out her undergraduate studies at the University of Cambridge. She obtained her PhD from the John Innes Centre working in the labs of Professor Cristobal Uauy and Professor Alison Smith on a transcription factor which regulates wheat grain nutrient content. Due to her outstanding achievements as a PhD student, she won a BBSRC Anniversary Future Leader Fellowship in 2015. During this time she developed the atlas and the open access website. In September 2018 Philippa moved to Birmingham to establish her own research group. Recently, she won the Rank Prize ECR Excellence Lecture award at the Monogram (UK small grain cereals) annual meeting which comprises of a travel award and giving lecture. As an early career scientist, Philippa is an inspiration in many ways and in this interview, she tells us how she got into plant science and advanced in her career.

Congratulations on your Rank Prize ECR Excellence Lecture award. How did you get into the field of plant science?

I grew up in the countryside and farming was all around me. During my undergraduate days, I studied general biology and we were made to dissect rats. That experience made me realize that working with animals was not something I enjoyed. I got interested in plant sciences towards the end of my undergrad as I began to see the importance of plant sciences for food production. So, I did a couple of short projects during this time. I started being interested in wheat during my PhD and studied the role of transcription factors in regulating senescence in wheat. I realized working on wheat was an exciting topic and had a lot of opportunities, especially because so many new resources were being developed. So I could say that my involvement in wheat biology was lucky timing. After my PhD, I was awarded a BBSRC Anniversary Future Leader Fellowship, a 3 year fellowship to pursue my own research. During the fellowship, I looked for genes that regulated senescence and nutrient remobilization in wheat using a gene regulatory network approach. I also got involved in the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC), through a project that involved making a gene expression atlas for wheat. This came about because we realized that there was lots of RNA expression data for wheat deposited in archives, but this data was not easy to access. Therefore with my colleagues Dr Ricardo Ramírez-González and Professor Cristobal Uauy we developed the wheat expression atlas. In 2018, I was appointed as a lecturer at the University of Birmingham and I’ve been there for one and a half years now. I’ve started to build my own group and set up the lab. Currently, I have two PhD students who are working on senescence and nutrient remobilization in wheat.

Nutritional content of wheat grain is very important in agriculture especially with the changing climate. How will this research improve quality of life for people?

My research involves trying to improve nutrient content in wheat by mobilizing nutrient from the dying vegetative tissues (e.g. leaves) to the grain. We are trying to understand how this process works at the genetic level. One of my PhD students is working on zinc and iron biofortification and trying to identify some genes regulating that process while another student is working on senescence and nutrient mobilization and transcription factors regulating that process. By understanding genes that regulate this process we could develop some molecular markers for marker assisted selection to help produce new varieties that are rich in nutritional content. A challenge with most of these breeding programs is the yield penalty involved in increasing protein and nutrient content. Our hope is that by understanding the mechanisms and some downstream genes within the pathway, we could separate the consequences of increasing nutrient content from that of decreasing yield. At the moment we don’t know enough of how the pathway is controlled and we are still trying to figure that out.

Philippa Borrill in a field, flying a drone to measure senescence

That sounds interesting and will be a useful contribution to science. Have you had any mentors in your career and what advice do you have for upcoming scientists?

I have been fortunate to have excellent mentors who have advised me on how to do good science, and build a strong network while doing my research project in the lab. My PhD advisors are very good in promoting the work of people in their labs and they always credited the students who did the work. It’s important to have mentors who will promote your efforts as a student, especially in meetings you are not going to be present at. Having a mentor who is candid helps so they’ll tell you not only things you are good at, but also things you need to work on. It is important to talk to other students to provide an opinion about what your mentor will be like. I also found it very valuable to have two or more mentors giving me different perspectives. One more thing to add- just because I’m no longer a student doesn’t mean I don’t need mentors anymore! In fact starting up my own lab has been one of the most challenging things I have done in my career and I have relied a lot upon my mentors, both my former PhD advisors, colleagues in Birmingham and scientists I have met through collaborations such as the IWGSC’s own Professor Rudi Appels.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman in your career?

I can’t say there have been specific challenges as a woman, but in any field, you’ll find people who do not treat women equally who are best avoided. As a young female in the academia, I go to conferences and sometimes people ask me: “So, who do you work for?” I run my own lab, I respond. It is important for everyone to realize that it is not out of place for a young woman to be a PI.

If you have the ability to change something about how women scientist are perceived in the UK. What would that be?

Generally, academia in the UK is very competitive. Recognizing team science is important.  I would love the academia to find mechanisms to recognize team work and collaboration. It is also important to help scientists to find a way to balance between their personal lives and doing research. I got lucky that my partner is also in the sciences but not in academia. This gives us more flexibility to align our schedules and balance work and personal life.

Finally, aside your research, what else do you do for fun

I like to cook, try out new recipes and I like to cycle.