Annis Richardson is the Lecturer in Molecular Crop Science at the University of Edinburgh, UK. Her research employs a multidisciplinary approach to investigate the molecular mechanisms governing organ development and evolution in grass crops, such as maize. In 2022, Annis was awarded a Starting Grant from the European Research Council. We spoke to Annis over Microsoft Teams to learn more about her career trajectory, her research and her agricultural roots.

Could you take me back to that first moment when you became interested in science?

I've always been one of those children that asks why something is the way it is, but I first became interested in science whilst doing experiments with my very inspiring primary school teacher, Mrs Shields. I gravitated towards science subjects at school and my plan was to go to Cambridge and study science. I'm not sure why, I didn't know anyone who had been to Oxbridge, but that's what I wanted to do and that's what I did for my undergraduate degree. I wasn't so sure what to do after that. In the summer between my second and third years at university, I worked with Professor Marc Knight at Durham University and I had a wonderful time. I was making constructs to test calcium signalling and I learned all the molecular biology skills I could possibly dream of. He kept asking me why I hadn't applied to do a PhD and he eventually got through to me. No one in my family has a PhD, so it just wasn't something that was on my radar. Agriculture has always been a big part of my life. I grew up on a smallholding, surrounded by fields growing up, and I was a young farmer as a teenager. One of my grandfathers ran a dairy (milk) business and the other was a farmer, both in South Wales. My Dad left school at 16 and then eventually ended up working for Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) as a research assistant; when he moved to Shropshire, he changed career and started teaching at an agricultural college. He rarely talked about his engineering background when I was little – he talked about it more when I was doing my degree!

You did your PhD at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, with Enrico Coen. What did you work on during that time?

When I started my PhD, I wasn't 100% sure what I wanted to study. My honours project was on plant viruses and RNA silencing, which was interesting, but I also liked development and evolution. I did the rotation program at the John Innes Centre and ended up in Enrico's lab because I love developmental biology. The big topic in his lab at the time was tissue cell polarity: how cells coordinate across tissues and know where their tops and bottoms are relative to the organ structure. I was looking at the role of tissue cell polarity in monocot development and how polarity changes affect organ shape in barley. I worked with a mutant called Hooded, which has these cool ectopic upside-down flowers (Richardson et al., 2016).

You then moved to do a postdoc with Sarah Hake at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. What influenced that decision?

I knew I wanted to travel and I met Sarah through a scientific retreat that Enrico organised during my PhD. She's very famous in plant genetics, but most importantly she's one of the best mentors you could ever have. When I asked her for a job she agreed! Moving to California was an unexpected culture shock. The cost of living was pretty horrendous, so I have a great deal of empathy for the postdocs who have been striking in California. Strikes meant that I got a pay rise while I was there, but the first year was very difficult. One of the most pivotal moments was having another postdoc join the lab who was in a similar situation, we both had partners that were far away, so we got on really well. Being in California broadened my experience and helped me appreciate that everyone has different outlooks, lifestyles and belief systems. It was wonderful to be dropped into that kind of open-minded, tolerant community. I was there for 3.5 years and I really enjoyed it.

California broadened my experience and helped me appreciate that everyone has different outlooks, lifestyles and belief systems

What projects did you work on during your postdoc?

Probably too many! My work was about identifying the genes that underpin leaf development, although I flirted with some other areas. Once we identified the genes, we then tried to place them within the context of what we already knew about leaf development and the existing gene regulatory networks (Xiao et al., 2022; Richardson et al., 2020 preprint; Richardson and Hake, 2022). I learnt a lot about next-generation sequencing: RNA sequencing, ChIP (chromatin immunoprecipitation) sequencing and whole-genome sequencing. I was part of a lot of collaborations that Sarah had as well, so I worked on lots of projects with people from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, Cornell and UCSD (University of California, San Diego). It was a great lab to be in as a postdoc because I had so much independence and I was able to develop my own ideas and projects (Hake and Richardson, 2019).

At what point during that postdoc did you start looking for principal investigator (PI) positions?

I would have happily stayed as a senior postdoc in Sarah's lab, but she was going to retire and was encouraging us all to think about what we wanted to do next. I was 2 years into my postdoc and I had a long-distance relationship with my partner during that whole time. We weren't sure he was going to get a job in California, so I started to look for jobs in the UK and contacted people about getting an independent fellowship to maintain the independence that I had with Sarah and work on what I was interested in. When I was writing my fellowship materials, I realised I had ideas that I wanted to do, and that I didn't necessarily want a boss. From that point, I focused on finding a group leader position.

You've mentioned being in the UK was important for you; were there any other considerations when deciding where to apply or where to accept?

It was important that there was a plant science department; I didn't want to be the lone plant scientist. It's good to have people who have some concept of what you do around you so you can get good feedback about what you're doing. I had already been in contact with Edinburgh University when I was asking about fellowship opportunities and then I saw the job advertised on Twitter. I asked the Head of the Department whether I'd qualify for the position and he said he wasn't sure, but to give it a go. I was really uncertain about it because I didn't think I was senior enough for the position. Various mentors (including my parents!) told me to stop being stupid and apply for it! I was lucky. For me, it was the right job, the right time and the right place.

What did you feel when starting your own group?

Disbelief, mostly! I was nervous because I was in charge of something that I didn't know how to run and I was alone. When you start as a PhD student, you're part of a cohort and things are organised to meet other students. Then when you join a lab as a postdoc everyone shows you around, etc. But, as a PI, you're just given an office. I do share an office, which is great. If I'd been completely on my own, it would have been very lonely.

How did you go about learning how to run a lab?

It is a steep learning curve but you learn on the job – some of it's trial and error. There were some training courses and I asked for advice from my colleagues, mentors and friends who'd set up labs recently. I don't think there's any one training course that covers everything that you need to know because you're doing more than just one job. I'd advise others to be organised: have databases, use numbering systems and track things. It's terrifying how expensive things are! I share with my lab how much an experiment costs to run so they appreciate that it might not be possible to repeat. Money is something that you worry about a lot as a new PI.

I don't think there's any one training course that covers everything that you need to know because you're doing more than just one job

What are the research themes of your lab?

We are seeking the underlying rules that control organ development in plants. I'm specifically interested in leaf and floral development in grass crops, because grasses provide more than 50% of global calories, and yet we don't know a huge amount about the grasses – they're quite different to other flowering plants. My work bridges crop science and evolutionary biology. I use a multidisciplinary approach, ranging from next-generation sequencing, molecular biology to 3D imaging and computational modelling, to try and get to the bottom of what's controlling patterning mechanisms. Then, I use comparative analyses in different species to see if the mechanisms are conserved or unique.

What has been the best moment so far?

So far, the best moment was being awarded my ERC (European Research Council) Starting Grant. It was my last year to apply for it so I felt under pressure. The application process was long, it took about 6 months to write. I handed in my application in January 2022 and then I was interviewed in September 2022. The support I received while writing the application from my institute and from colleagues was amazing, and the feedback you get from the review process is really detailed, which could really help improve the proposal if you weren't successful. When I found out I was successful it was like winning the lottery – I didn't believe it! In some ways, it was then that I felt I had really started my lab.

Conversely, have there been any challenges?

One of the hardest things is learning to manage expectations – of yourself and of others. Everything goes a lot slower than you anticipate. Start-up packages aren't large in the UK, so you have to write grant proposals and network with people a lot, which takes time away from being in the lab. Then the pandemic hit, which didn't help. I started in October 2019 but in February 2020 I travelled back to Berkeley to do some lab work because I didn't have the resources in Edinburgh. It was difficult to get back when lockdown happened! When I managed to get a flight I came to my office, picked up my computer and went straight home – that was it for months. I did data analysis and reading. It was peaceful because I had no one in my group to worry about at that point. It was also very lonely because I couldn't meet anyone; I was in a new city where I didn't know anyone and my partner was in California. I reached out to people whom I knew in the States for virtual chats so that I could talk to people. I've since realised that part of the power of doing science is meeting other people and talking to them about it. Being challenged by people in your field is a huge part of the validation that you're doing the right thing. Without that, you end up getting into a cycle of wondering if you're doing things the right way.

How do you go about recruiting new lab members?

It's quite hard. When I started advertising my PhD studentship, my big publication hadn't yet come out. I had spent so long in the States that I had good connections there, but not so much in the UK. I found it difficult to get people to even apply. When you're excited about a project proposal you've written, it doesn't feel nice when nobody applies. I spoke to colleagues and they said, as a female, I'd have fewer applicants. Things have changed; I get applications now, which is good. I've also started writing vaguer project outlines for PhD projects so the student and I can write the project plan together – they have ownership of the project right from the application.

And how do you choose who to hire?

We're meant to be very objective to make sure that we're not having any unconscious bias, which I think is important. I start off by trying to score people based on their CVs, so the CV is crucial. I can evaluate technical skills – I like to have a little problem or test in the interview, and I ask them to give a presentation if they've done a research project to see if they understand what they have done and why it was important. But, it's difficult to tell in a 20-minute interview whether a person is going to be right for your lab. It's not necessarily a comment on their ability but whether they fit with the environment that you're trying to build. I've been warned that the wrong person can make the lab very unpleasant. So far, I haven't found a way to determine whether someone would be a good fit. I try and get my lab members to talk to any potential candidate to see if they engage well with what they're doing. I also look for people who are enthusiastic because I can teach most technical skills. Every PhD student is completely different, so trying to expect them to work the same way as you did as a PhD student is not fair. I am trying to make sure that I manage my expectations and try not to push too much.

How important do you think mentorship is in someone's career and how have you gone about mentoring others?

Mentorship is essential. A good mentor can make the difference between whether you apply for the perfect job or not. My mentors include Sarah and Enrico, but also friends at the same career stage or a little ahead. My dad's a great mentor as well. He frequently tells me, ‘What's the worst can happen? Just do it’. Having people that encourage you is important – having people that challenge you is important too.

In terms of being a mentor myself, we have a postdoc mentorship program here, so I mentor a couple of postdocs in the department who are not under my line of command. I've also got my students and I'm on PhD committees. One thing that I try and do is to connect with people, give them space to tell me what's going on with them. I would rather know a problem was brewing than deal with the consequences of the problem later on. I have an open-door policy and encourage them to come to me with anything – no issue is too small. I also encourage mentees to take opportunities that they're interested in. For example, I run the outreach and science communication programs for the institute (https://www.ed.ac.uk/biology/plant-sciences/outreach). We have a wonderful committee of PhD students and postdocs, and I support their ideas and grant applications for outreach.

Also, as a woman in science, female mentors help call out poor behaviour, such as being ignored, which can be normalised. They explain that it's not a problem with you, it's a problem with the person you're interacting with. It helped me realise the power that you have, as someone who's slightly more senior in making more junior people feel welcome and included. For example, at conferences, I try to speak to PhD students and postdocs that seem to be at the edge of conversations.

What other aspects of diversity and inclusion do you feel passionate about?

I'm an advocate for women in STEM, first-generation scientists, diversity in STEM and mental health. I think people choose science as a career because it's a passion. Unfortunately, that comes with consequences because it becomes part of your identity and that means that you can very quickly lose yourself. It's important to make sure that you're looking after your mental health. For example, I've learned over the years that I can't work weekends, because my mental health really suffers. I'm also open about having been to counsellors. I'd encourage other people to get help, to talk to someone, whoever that may be. Sometimes it's best to speak to a professional because you don't have a personal connection with them, so you don't feel guilty. I think the best teams are made of people from diverse backgrounds. To make sure that you can have a diverse team, you need to support their mental health and their ability to feel welcome. I try very hard to do that right.

To make sure that you can have a diverse team, you need to support their mental health and their ability to feel welcome. I try very hard to do that right.

We've already touched upon your interest in public engagement and outreach. What activities do you get involved in and why do you think it's important?

It's important because, ultimately, what we do will impact people and we are publicly funded so we need to talk about it. I don't feel like it's education – it's sharing what we know. I think science can be quite scary because we're often seen as being too far beyond the general knowledge of people. For example, I am not afraid of talking about genetic modification (GM) because I think the more we talk about it, the more normalised it becomes. Science communication, in all formats and to all people, is important; it's why, when I came to Edinburgh, I set up the institute's committee for science communication and outreach. People were doing similar things independently but without centralised support by the institute. By setting up a committee, I was able to help by putting my name behind projects and getting resources. We do all sorts of things: write blog posts, online workshops, virtual ‘Ask a Scientist’ sessions, videos, etc. We do in-person stuff too, such as the Edinburgh Science Festival and Midlothian Science Festival, school visits and art exhibitions. We try and reach a wide range of people including via social media such as Twitter (@InstMolPlantSci), Instagram (@ imps.outreach) and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/institute-of-molecular-plant-sciences-sbs-4a1044239/).

Is there any point during your career that you thought about trying something else?

During my degree, I thought about becoming a doctor and going into medicine. I realised that I like understanding concepts and making links between things, but I'm not so good at remembering details. I always say that I do research because it's fun, I enjoy it and I'm excited about what I do. When it's no longer fun, it's time to change because if you're not passionate about it then it's not going to be a pleasant experience for you or the people around you. In general, having a PhD doesn't mean you have to be an academic. I have a lot of friends who did PhDs with me and we're all doing different things now. The skills you learn as a scientist are valuable in all walks of life.

Finally, is there anything that Development readers would be surprised to learn about you?

I love to cook – I love food. Whenever I travel, I try and learn a recipe from that place to really get into the culture and I then bring it back with me. I like bringing big groups of people together, usually from different parts of my life, and feeding them.

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