Journal of Experimental Biology is celebrating 100 years of discovery in 2023 and, as part of our reflections, we are inviting Journal Editors to tell us their thoughts about the journal and to look to the future. In this Conversation, Monitoring Editor John Terblanche tells us how he narrowly avoided becoming a sports scientist and why he thinks phenotypic plasticity is the big question currently facing comparative physiologists.
What is your area of scientific expertise and how did that introduce you to Journal of Experimental Biology?
By trade I'm a comparative physiologist and an insect physiologist, but as an undergraduate I took a major in biochemistry and physiology with a lot of sports science modules. I was tempted to go into sports science. However, I got introduced to insects when looking at high altitude adaptations of humans during my Master's degree in human respiration physiology. At the time, I was a little bit frustrated about working with human subjects; they tend not to listen when you ask them not to drink coffee and it's very difficult to pin them down to do things. I'd been toying with the idea of moving to a slightly easier subject organism – something without much of a vertebral column – when I got introduced to Steven Chown (then at Stellenbosch University, South Africa). He was doing a lot of work on insects in extreme environments, so we found a common interest in insects as models. My earliest introduction to JEB was through some of Ted Garland's high-altitude training papers on mice. They were really fascinating and thorough examples of comparative physiology, how experiments should be done, and it was through exposure to JEB papers that I began to admire the journal and realize that it is a very high-quality outlet for comparative physiology. I could only dream about maybe publishing there one day. That dream was not realized during my Master's, but my first paper in JEB was as a co-author. It was an incredibly positive experience and then I was first author on my next JEB paper in 2006: a comparison of different forms of phenotypic plasticity using tsetse as a model system. That was a really wonderful process. I had a nice set of reviews that were constructive and helpful and that paper then led to an invitation from Frank Seebacher (University of Sydney, Australia) and Hans Pörtner (Alfred Wegener Institute, Germany) to join a thermal biology session in one of the Society for Experimental Biology annual main meetings in Glasgow. Through that I got introduced to the JEB community.
How did you join the Outside JEB team?
Towards the end of my PhD Steven Chown suggested that I join up. He was aware that the journal was looking for people to contribute and I'd been muttering that I'd like to write more popular science, to communicate our science to a broader audience. I think that connection between trying to convey results for high school kids and young scientists – who are maybe a little bit unfamiliar with the topics and the themes that we work on – got me really fired up. I developed fantastic writing skills while working with Outside JEB. I figured out how to summarize succinctly a particular paper, to break it down into three or four short paragraphs and one or two key sentences. The experience forces you to read the paper carefully and to think. It also encouraged me to read very broadly, to choose papers that were not in JEB that would still be interesting for the JEB audience. That was an incredibly formative process, because it helped shape some of the grant applications that I went on to write with colleagues and some of the ideas – such as questions about how insects thermoregulate – that have become part of the research plan for my group. Writing for Outside JEB is a good training to practise writing science, which I feel is getting a bit lost in this era where AI can potentially do it all for us. Learning to formulate an argument and your thoughts on paper is a very important skill.
I figured out how to summarize succinctly a particular paper, to break it down into three or four short paragraphs and one or two key sentences
What are the current big outstanding questions in your field?
I would say it's probably phenotypic plasticity – how different conditions create diverse phenotypes from the same genotype – which is a topic that is mysterious and interesting for many reasons. Firstly, phenotypic plasticity is found in many different taxa and many different traits. Some species have the ability to respond very rapidly to small changes in conditions while others seem not to do anything at all. When we've looked in the literature and tried to estimate the costs of phenotypic plasticity it seems to be relatively cheap, or maybe we're not measuring it correctly, but in that case why do some species not show it? Also, we have no real predictive power when it comes to phenotypic plasticity, we can't say which environments, which species, which traits are most likely to show it, so understanding patterns of phenotypic plasticity and getting to a predictive set of tools would be very powerful. I think phenotypic plasticity bridges a wide range of questions in comparative physiology, and linking through to mechanistic predictions would be very exciting.
How relevant is the journal's past research to today's science?
If you spend a few hours digging through the old JEB literature, it's clear that some of the earliest publications are classics that are still being cited today. There are papers from the late 1920s and 1930s that are still informing experimental designs and helping us to shape questions to understand insect responses to extreme temperatures and combinations of temperature and humidity. I really hope that some of the work that we're producing now is useful in the same way 50 years in the future, informing novel questions that should be addressed. Research is a circular process in the sense that we often end up redoing chunks of work that were done before. I've often been surprised to see questions that we're asking now that were already topical 80–100 years ago in JEB. But I think that there have been periods where the importance of that work wasn't fully appreciated. Now, we have the power to integrate, compile and synthesize old and new literature in ways that we didn't have before, I hope that some of this historic work will feed into future meta-analyses and syntheses and hopefully in 50 years’ time people will still have exciting insects to work on and that there will be more room for whole-organism experimentation.
Now, we have the power to integrate, compile and synthesize old and new literature in ways that we didn't have before, I hope that some of this historic work will feed into future meta-analyses and syntheses
What do you think is the secret of JEB's longevity and success?
The JEB community is very welcoming and it's really nice when you come across constructive criticism that is helpful. JEB provides a blend of attributes – including a wide range of paper types, fast decision times and an excellent developmental editing team – that make for an easy learning environment, which is really important for postgrad students who are submitting their first papers to a journal. Also, the website is always being updated, I always know that there's going to be some new material on the homepage when I click on it and that I'm going to get three or four papers that are worth reading. The articles, figures and cover photos are always very high quality. Even now, the copyediting and developmental editing that is done by the journal is world class. Most other journals I've worked with have completely abandoned that idea and are horrified when I suggest that they should do some developmental editing, which makes me chuckle. And it's free to publish and it has free colour images. All of that is an amazing resource, which students don't always tap into. I am also blown away by the level of online supporting material that you can put into the papers, which is a cost that's covered by the journal. And then JEB offers Travelling Fellowships, which is a nice example of how I benefited from the JEB community early in my career. I secured a JEB Travelling Fellowship to visit Stefan Hetz's lab at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany around 2007 and it was such a positive experience. Now I'm amazed by the diversity of different funding opportunities that JEB and The Company of Biologists has developed, with a whole suite of young scientist support tools.
If you could time travel, what piece of future equipment would you bring back with you, what would it do and what questions would you use it to answer?
If I was time travelling, I would love to get shrunk down into a tiny capsule and then be jetted into an insect's haemolymph to fly around inside the body, a bit like the movie ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’, but the sci-fi version. I would love to go into different places and to be able to see what is going on at a microscopic level; to see things like DNA being transcribed or RNA being synthesized on a scale where I could visualize what was happening. To be shrunk down and to be the silent observer in the cell, like the fly on the wall, to see cellular processes and cellular stress responses in real life would be quite wonderful.
I would love to go into different places and to be able to see what is going on at a microscopic level
If you had one piece of advice for your younger self, what would it be?
I would say be driven by curiosity and don't be afraid to choose your study question over the model organism. Ultimately, the question is more important than the taxa being worked on. In some cases, almost any species will do, but in others you really need a special type of organism to focus on a particular question. Also, don't let the knocks set you back, it's all part of the process. We tend to get easily discouraged, but science is a critical process and one has to read between the lines of referee reports. Sometimes, if you're not getting a lot of negative comments, that means that you're actually doing pretty well. We often latch on to the critical comments and think that they are a huge problem, but you're missing the fact that 80% of the paper has been very well received.
Be driven by curiosity and don't be afraid to choose your study question over the model organism
If you had to sum up what JEB means to you as an author and a researcher, what would you say?
For me, JEB is a wonderfully caring community and a very welcoming environment for students and young scientists. It fosters a wide range of practical skills that you don't necessarily get through a lot of other communities, and I think it's through this diverse range of supporting environments that you actually get the freedom to explore science in a way that's very powerful and unique. I am really looking forward to supporting JEB further and I think it's a privilege to be in a position now where I can try to give some of that community feeling back to the journal. This is an important opportunity for me to support postgraduate students and early-career researchers as they progress towards becoming the next generation of scientists advancing innovative experimental biology.
John Terblanche is Professor at the Centre for Invasion Biology, Department of Conservation Ecology & Entomology, Faculty of AgriSciences, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
John Terblanche was interviewed by Kathryn Knight. The interview has been edited and condensed with the interviewee's approval.