Dani Sakran contributed to the reporting for this story.
Melkamu Woldemariam has the best of both worlds.
His position as an assistant professor of biology at The College of New Jersey affords him the opportunity to do the two things he loves—teach and conduct research.
Last month, Woldemariam was the recipient of a major boon that will allow him to step up his activities in both areas.
The Plainsboro resident has been awarded a $1 million joint grant from the National Science Foundation and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
The funding will be used by Woldemariam, 41, a plant biologist who specializes in molecular and chemical ecology, to support his research program and to engage undergraduate research collaborators in his work.
Woldemariam’s research involves comparing the chemical composition of corn varieties and how we can better prevent against insect attack, as well as revealing the genetic causes for the variability in plant chemical defenses.
Each year, a sizable fraction of global agricultural productivity in crop plants is lost to insect and pathogen attacks.
“It’s an awesome feeling to know that the work we do here at TCNJ is viewed very favorably by talented researchers in the field,” Woldemariam said. “I am thrilled to be able to give my students the opportunity to participate in this project with potential national and international significance.”
Woldemariam was born in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, and he grew up in a small town called Jimma, which is about 300 kilometers southwest the capital.
After graduating from high school, he attended Addis Ababa University, where Woldemariam says he shaped his academic life.
While there, he earned a degree in biology. After graduating, he got a job at the university as a graduate assistant. During that time, he taught and was also leading laboratory projects, which made him fall in love with academic processes.
I said, “okay, teaching and doing research is the best of both worlds.”
He went on to earn a master’s degree at Abbis Ababa University and then went on to teach at the school for four years.
He then went to Germany and earned his Ph.D. at the Max Planck Institute.
“That’s where I got introduced to the world of plant-insect reactions,” Woldemariam said. “So I studied there for about four years and got postdoctoral training.”
He then came to America to study at the Boyce Thompson Institute, which is an independent affiliate of Cornell University. Four years later, in 2018, he accepted a position as a professor at TCNJ.
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Editor Bill Sanservino and editorial intern Dani Sakran recently conducted an interview over Zoom with Woldemariam to discuss his life, career and the research project that won him the grant. Below is an edited version of that interview.
Bill Sanservino: Can you tell me how you became interested in biology when you were younger?
Melkamu Woldemariam: Biology is the only place in science where you can seriously inquire about this beautiful process called life. Right? So, I couldn’t find any other place where I can inquire about life and then spend my life literally asking questions and then finding a way of answering these questions. So, that was a life-changing moment.
That is one thing that really made me fall in love with biology. The second thing is the application part, right? Every study that you do in biology in one way or another affects the life of millions of people, and that aspect is very attractive to me. I think these two probably sum it up.
BS: Growing up, what did your parents do for a living?
MW: I grew up with my grandparents and my grandad was a teacher. And, probably, he influenced me to be a teacher myself. He was at the age of retirement when I was born, and, of course, since he retired he didn’t have anything to do but inspire me to be a knowledge seeker. So, I must have taken some of his footsteps.
BS: When did you start actively pursuing research projects and especially research projects in this particular area?
MW: This particular area started when I was a Ph.D. student. As a Ph.D. student, you are always given a project to work on so that you earn your research, but in my second year of my research, I knew that I would be in academics.
I knew that I would be a researcher, so I was always thinking about, “what would I do when I graduate,” right? Coincidentally, I ended up identifying corn as a very interesting plant motor system and here we are. I ended up studying and then falling in love with corn.
BS: Can you tell me a little bit about how you formulated your current project, how grant process worked and what was it like actually receiving the grant?
MW: I started this project as more or less a paid project when I was a postdoctoral scientist at Cornell. I started asking questions and then doing some parallel experiments, in addition to the main project that I got paid for.
The preliminary data that we collected over the four years gave us very strong impetus to propose something grand—something big. And, that’s how it started.
Right after I joined TCNJ, a couple of my students and I kind of strung these pieces of preliminary data together and that gave us a complete picture of what we needed to explore.
We started working on the grant, and at TCNJ we have a grant writer, which makes life really easy. We worked with her for about 6 months refining the ideas and then writing everything in a way that made the most sense.
My collaborator at Cornell University also chipped in—he’s like a senior personnel on the grant. We then compiled everything and sent it to the National Science Foundation.
BS: What was your reaction when you got the grant?
MW: The news that the project is being funded is very encouraging and I’m very excited for it—especially three things.
The first one is the scientific aspect of it. The grant will give us an opportunity to explore the science in as much detail as we can.
Second, I am so excited about the training opportunity that it brings. Right now, even at the beginning of the grant, I have eleven undergrad students working with me in my lab.
The project will stay for another four years, and you can imagine the amount of high-quality research that I will be able to provide to students of all kinds, from all backgrounds and social and educational backgrounds.
The third opportunity is training somebody at a really high level. I will have a postdoctoral scientist working in my lab, and we have started the hiring process. The postdoctoral scientist will be trained in my lab and they will transition from being a postdoc into a faculty member at another college. That high-level training is something thing that I am so excited about.
Getting the money is really good for the science, but in addition to that, there is a lot of life-changing opportunities for students literally at the very formative stage of their academic involvement. That is simply priceless.
BS: Can you explain to me, I guess for the readers as simplest terms as we possibly can, just exactly what it is you’re researching?
MW: In simple terms, what we’re looking for is mechanisms for protecting corn plants from attack by pests.
Corn is a very important crop. It provides energy, both for directly feeding our population, cattle and the alcohol industry. The energy industry is also fueled by corn.
Unfortunately, because of its nutritional value, is a species that is attacked by more than 90 different types of insect species.
MW: Yes, 90 different types, and that is actually an understatement—it could be way above that.
What we are trying to do is to find out a natural way of defending corn plants from these attackers naturally.
All plant species in one way or another produce defensive chemicals when they are attacked by herbivores.
The production and the release of these toxic compounds is influenced by a very critical hormone signaling pathway. That hormone signaling cascade is known as the Jasmonate Signaling Cascade.
It is a very critical signaling cascade. If you have that cascade working well, then the plants will produce high amounts of defense compounds when they’re attacked by herbivores, which means they can defend themselves better.
In corn, we don’t know a lot about this signaling cascade. We know very little. So, that is exactly why I’m interested in looking at how this Jasmonate Signaling Cascade monitors the defense responses of corn.
We will be identifying novel genes or novel mechanisms that regulate the defense responses of maize (corn) and once those mechanisms are identified, you can imagine how important that would be, because you can breed them into the corn varieties that we have using natural methods and then go about producing more resistant corn lines.
BS: Have you started the research yet? How far are you?
MW: The preliminary data that we used is really good enough, and we are building on that. For the last six months, despite the pandemic, I was able to sneak in the lab, following, of course, all of the social distancing and masking protocols to do some work.
BS: How did you manage, and how will you manage, to go forward and work on this as the pandemic has progressed?
MW: The pandemic is painful on everybody. The last semesters we couldn’t bring students on campus, so I had to do most of the research by myself.
Fortunately, the early-career faculty like me were allowed to spend a limited amount of time in the laboratory with very strict social distancing protocols.
TCNJ has done a very good job and that benefits me a little bit. Even though I couldn’t involve all of my students in person, I was able to do a good amount of research during the pandemic.
Now, we are almost coming back to normalcy, and a number of students would come to the lab. Of course, you can only have one student at a time in the lab, but given that it’s way better than last semester.
BS: Has the college announced in person classes yet?
MW: No, no. We do have hybrid mode where you have a very limited number of students come in person and the rest join remotely. But, for research, you can only have one student per lab. When that student goes away, another student joins.
So, in a very specially and temporally separated manner we can have a limited number of students for research right now. Next semester we hope that we will be in person, but it is really difficult to make predictions. It all depends on how the pandemic pans out.
BS: Let’s talk a little bit about your home life. How long have you lived in Plainsboro Township?
MW: Three years now. I’m a newcomer.
BS: Relatively. Plainsboro is pretty transient, though so you might be one of the long-timers by this point. How many children do you have and what schools do they attend?
MW: I have two children. A daughter who is 16, she’s almost turning 17 now. She is in grade 11 at High School North. My son is in grade 9, he just turned 15.
BS: Do you have experiences that stick out that may have been important in helping shape your life or your career?
MW: Oh, absolutely. I have a lot of stories, but I think all of them, as far as my academic life is concerned, all of my stories revolve around my students.
I started my teaching career really early, I got lucky. I was selected to be a graduate assistant when I was 23 and a half. Which means, right from college I was a near-professor working in an academic environment.
I built relationships with many of my students early on, and the highlight of my life has been to see most of my students that I taught early becoming professors themselves.
I’m relatively young, but I have students who I taught as juniors or sophomores who are now professors in many universities all over.
That is an amazing feeling. It’s just like your children growing up and becoming somebody. And I was involved in teaching them courses, writing them recommendations and seeing them grow over the years.
Those stories always make me fall in love with teaching. That is a unique thing about my academic life. If there is anything, that would be a story.
BS: So, you’re in a great position. You get to teach students, work with students, train them to be instructors themselves while also, at the same time, get to do research in an area that you have a lot of interest in.
MW: Absolutely. I think that the influence that teachers have is simply an understatement. I mean, we do influence our students in really meaningful ways.
That is why I think this profession in general deserves a lot of respect and recognition. I feel strongly about that.
Another story is probably related to TCNJ. TCNJ is a smaller college, by many standards, but we have a really good project-driven environment.
Every course, for example, in the biology department, remarkably has a strong project-based teaching curriculum. Students are exposed to actual research early on.
Our first course, Bio 201, has three research projects where students will be progressing through and working actively on. It’s not like a theoretical enterprise, but it’s actually based on a research-driven curriculum.
That is one really remarkable thing and it supports your research career too. The second thing is that we are highly encouraged to integrate our research into the classroom.
This is unique in many aspects. For example, I teach two upper level courses, and in both of them my students are actually working on my own research.
They are part of the data collection. So, it’s not like they’re given a tiny project where they start, then they finish, and then that’s it. They know they are involved in something grand. Something that contributes to a bigger picture.
Those are really important things that actually make everyone thrive in TCNJ’s environment. In addition to, of course, having a dedicated office for grant writing and encouraging faculty to be teacher scholars. And, I would like this message to be out there, in one way or another, and that is responsible for my little success I’ve achieved so far.
BS: Can you tell me your wife’s name?
MW: My wife’s name— I think her shortened name would be easier—is Lily. She prefers that one. She has an Ethiopian name which is longer, but Lily is probably easier.
BS: If you look down the road, where do you see your career going?
MW: I have one life mission. I want to do really cool science that can be done in any big universities.
I worked at Cornell and I worked at the Max Planck Institute, where you can do really huge levels of research.
What I see myself doing, is conducting exactly that kind of high level research at TCNJ. That is my life mission. And the grant is enhancing the research capacity of my department.
I want to make sure we have all the tools that we need, all the techniques and skills that we need to do really cool science with undergrad students. Those are, I think, my life missions for the next few years.
BS: That’s awesome. I guess, one other question that came to my mind is generally what do the funds from the grant go towards?
MW: A couple of things. Number one, most of the grant goes into purchasing the tools that are needed towards research. It could be reagents that are needed, it could be paying for services like mass spectrometic services, DNA sequencing services—all of those really pricey things will be covered by that.
A fair chunk of it will go into training the postdoctoral scientists that come to my lab. The postdoctoral scientist swill stay at my lab for two years and we will be training the postdoctoral scientists using the funding.
We will have about two REU students— there is this program called Research Experience for Undergraduates and what we do is send two students every year to Cornell for the summer for an intensive two-month long training.
We will send two students per year every summer for the next four or five years. And these students will be be exposed to really high level research for two months
In addition, there are two students every year that will be trained with me during the summer. Tuition fees and all of the things will be covered for them.
These are the major things (the grant will pay for), but in addition to this, we have two days, which I will be hosting students from the Trenton school district.
The idea is we will go ahead and recruit these high school students and they will come to my lab and see what kind of research we do.
They will actually be involved in learning the tools of the trade and then asking questions that are related to my research. We will have this kind of continuous supply of training opportunities for students from the surrounding areas.
In addition to that, I think I have two students per year who will join me on a National Conference. We will go to scientific symposiums and my plan is to actually put my students up front, so rather than me telling my story, these undergrad students will go to the scientific symposiums, present posters or even give talks.
We do also have funding for that so that the students will be able to network with other students and other professors and actually see what scientific symposiums on a big scale look like. So, these are the major big-ticket items for the research.
BS: Is there anything I haven’t asked or talked to you about that you would like the readers to know about?
MW: I think we talked pretty much well about every aspect. Good questions. Please make sure your readers know how awesome TCNJ’s environment is. For students, it’s an environment where they can come and thrive.
And a big acknowledgement to everybody at TCNJ, the department, the deanship is a very supportive and nurturing environment. And I really, really appreciate the support form everybody.