You need to find your niche in science: Meet Helen Fones

Dr Helen Fones is a plant pathologist and researcher at the University of Exeter. Here she tells us about her work and the challenges she is determined to overcome. She cannot imagine being anything other than a scientist and if you read on you will find out why. You can come and see Helen on her soapbox on the 24th of June 2017 in Exeter’s Princesshay Square where she will give a talk called: “The fungal threats to food security”



By Helen Fones

You need to find your niche in science…

I’m a plant pathologist, studying the interactions between crop plants and disease organisms that reduce yields –at great economic cost, or worse.  As global demand for food increases, every possible option to prevent crop losses will need to be explored.  Currently, my research ranges from the fairly fundamental – studying the lifecycles of fungi responsible for diseases including Wheat Leaf Blotch and Ash Dieback–to the applied, testing potential fungicides for activity against ‘Panama’ Disease of bananas.  I’ve always been fascinated by plants – at least since my mother explained the alternation of generations in ferns to me, when I was about six and wanted to know why our ferns only grew in damp places.


It started here?

Later, I realised that microbes fascinate me equally: so, plant pathology.  Although I chose to be a plant pathologist, I don’t think I chose to be a scientist.  Research simply claimed me as its own.  I have never found anything as fulfilling as the moment when the data I’ve collected start to speak for themselves, confirming or denying hypotheses, but most of all throwing up new ideas and new avenues to explore.  My second biggest thrill in life is the fizzing-brain feeling of ideas queuing up to be thought; my biggest is seeing a student I’ve worked with experience that.


Unexpected infected of ash leaves (red) by asexual spores of the ash dieback fungus (Image by Dr Helen Fones; from: Fones, H. N., Mardon, C., & Gurr, S. J. (2016). A role for the asexual spores in infection of Fraxinus excelsior by the ash-dieback fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. Scientific Reports, 6.).



Right now, though, I’m at the point in my career where women leak from the leaky pipeline of scientific career progress: numbers of men and women are near equal in my field up to the postdoctoral stage, but far fewer women go on to principle investigator.  So, it seems that the barriers between postdoc and PI are higher for women.  I love a challenge, though, so I’ll give this my best shot.  I’ll need to be pretty resilient.  I have been discouraged; knocked back repeatedly by advice such as: 90% of postdocs won’t get an academic job, so get real; If you don’t work seven days a week you’re a no-hoper; You can’t expect to make PI when you’ve been postdoc-ing for seven years.  I would be interested to know whether men at my age and career stage hear this litany as loudly as I do, but, whether or not that’s the case, I want to fight this attitude, on behalf of and along with early career researchers – male and female – everywhere.

To succeed, researchers need to find a niche.  I’m hoping to build mine by viewing plant-pathogen interactions through a holistic lens, considering not just the host and its defences, nor the pathogen, but the system they create between them.  Pathogens, living within the plant, shape their environment just as the plant itself does, influencing and contributing to nutrient usage, for example.  The plant responds to pathogens, but those responses are part of a broader network in which it is also responding to temperature, soil nutrients, herbivory, and more.  All of this may in turn affect the pathogen and disease outcomes.  And that’s not all.  Many pathogens spend parts of their lifecycles in niches other than those where we see them causing diseases.  These expose them to additional evolutionary pressures.  My recent work has shown that the wheat leaf blotch fungus can survive on the leaf surface for days, instead of invading the leaf tissues.  Non-infecting variants of this fungus may simply remain on the surface, where they might continue to grow and reproduce, using nutrients from the leaf surface without alerting the plant to their presence.  This lifestyle would need a whole array of adaptations not used by fungi that grow within the plant, and, if it turns out to be important, might explain some of the genetic variation we can see in the fungus.  Factors like this might also help us to understand more about whether a particular pathogen is likely to emerge as a new or serious problem on a particular crop.


Leaf surface fungus: Scanning Electron Micrograph by Dr Helen Fones, false colouring by Dr Dan Bebber (University of Exeter).




Along my journey, I hope to help others on the same career trajectory to support each other.  I’m currently part of an attempt to strengthen the Early Career Researcher’s Network (ECRN) in my department.  I really want to create a space for sharing practical tips, bouncing ideas around, but also just being there for each other: sharing careers advice, mental health advice, advice on how to balance the demands of different aspects of life.  I believe that science should be a supportive and collaborative effort, both in terms of the work scientists do and the ways in which we interact.  I hope the ECRN can grow into a forum that helps people to contribute and realise their potential within science.  I have benefitted massively from having three incredible mentors: my PhD supervisors at Oxford, Prof Gail Preston and Prof Andrew Smith; and my current boss at Exeter, Prof Sarah Gurr.  I hope to encourage, inspire and support others as they have done me.

You can read more from Helen here:

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