And the SPPS award goes to…

The five winners of the biannual SPPS awards have been selected. Graphic adapted from srts.info

The winners of the four SPPS awards have been selected and we are pleased to present them for our readers. There are actually five winners, since it was decided to double up on the SPPS Early Career Award and give it to two equally qualified young scientists. The winners will receive the honor, a monetary reward and a certificate during the SPPS Congress 2015 in Stockholm this summer, and at this occasion they will also present their scientific work at an invited lecture. Candidates for the biannual awards were proposed by the society’s members and the council during the autumn and in January, the Council selected the five lucky ones:

  • SPPS Award: Prof. Gunnar Öquist, Umeå University, Sweden
  • Physiologia Plantarum Award: Prof. Torgny Näsholm, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Umeå, Sweden
  • SPPS Popularisation Prize: Professor Stefan Jansson, Umeå University, Sweden
  • SPPS Early Career Award: Dr. Nathaniel Street, Umeå University, Sweden and Dr. Ari-Pekka Mähönen, University of Helsinki, Finland

Read on below to learn more about the awardees.

Gunnar Öquist received the Danish Knight of the Order of Dannebrog in 2014. From dg.dk

For the SPPS Award, which is given for outstanding, merited contribution to the science of plant biology in Scandinavia, Gunnar Öquist was selected. He is professor emeritus at Umeå University in Sweden and has been working with plant physiology for 47 years since he graduated in botany in 1968. He has held positions at three Swedish universities in Uppsala, Lund and Umeå and served several periods as visiting scientist in the US, Canada and Australia. Among numerous honorable degrees, memberships and awards, Öquist has been Head of the Swedish Natural Science Research Council, Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and Vice Chair of the Board of the Nobel Foundation. In addition, Öquist has been classified as an ISI Highly Cited Researcher.

“I have always been interested in biology and during my undergraduate studies at Uppsala University in the 1960s, I became particularly interested in plant physiology,” says Öquist and explains that he became fascinated with photosynthesis because it combined biology with chemistry and physics: “It was a very exciting interdisciplinary field in quite fast development and as a young researcher it was exciting to become part of this development.” One of his most recognized scientific contributions deals with mechanistic understanding of how evergreen leaves (i.e. Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris) respond to seasonal climate changes, but he has also made seminal contributions to our present understanding of stress and acclimative responses in photosynthesis in general. Much of this work, which demonstrates the dynamic properties of the photosynthetic apparatus, was presented in a review in Annual Review of Plant Biology in 2003.

Torgny Näsholm is acknowledged with the Physiologia Plantarum Award for his papers published in SPPS’s journal. From www.upsc.se

Torgny Näsholm had already heard some rumors when he late in January received an email from SPPS Journal responsible, Lisbeth Jonsson, telling him that he had won the society’s Physiologia Plantarum Award. “I was naturally very glad to get the message, glad because of the recognition of my research and happy that it was from SPPS,” he says and continues: “Moving forward is always about figuring out new experiments, approaches and methods that may help improving our understanding of a phenomenon. The prize may help me moving forward with this research.”

Näsholm’s research has focused on plant nitrogen nutrition since he 15 years ago realized something. He explains: “I discovered that the textbook depiction of plant nitrogen nutrition was not applicable to forests. This is because organic nitrogen compounds dominate forest soils while mineral nitrogen and especially nitrate is present only in very low concentrations.” One of his key discoveries, that boreal forest plants take up organic nitrogen in the form of amino acids, was published in Nature in 1998 and was a turning point in the understanding of nitrogen metabolism. In Näsholm’s long list of publications, several are from Physiologia Plantarum and he is presently wondering if it is time to revisit the latest knowledge in the field of plant nitrogen nutrition in one of the journal’s well respected Minireviews.

Stefan Jansson lecturing school children about “How does a tree know it is autumn?” From vimeo.com

Even though Stefan Jansson has spent a lot of time over several years by informing the public and participating in the debate about GMOs and other issues relating to plant physiology, he had never received any concrete acknowledgement for his efforts before being informed that he had won the SPPS Popularization Prize. And in stark contrast to the growing requirement for scientists to promote and communicate their research, they have limited incentive to do so, Jansson explains: “When it comes to science we have very efficient ways of evaluating it. To evaluate teaching is less straighforward, but the academic system does its best to do this as good as possible. But for popularization or outreach there is to my knowledge no such system, so you more or less jeopardize your possibilities to get grants and positions by spending time on this, without any award except the personal satisfaction.”

Besides being a respected scientist in plant genetics, Jansson strives to communicate his knowledge at several levels. In December 2014, he coordinated an open letter to decision makers in Europe from 21 leading European plant scientists, arguing that regulation of GMOs must be based on scientific knowledge rather than ideology or belief. Among several initiatives to inform the public about GMOs, he has participated in a live transmitted debate on Swedish national television, a public symposium at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and contributed with numerous letters and articles in Swedish newspapers. He has also served as national coordinator of the Fascination of Plants Day, that will take place this year in May.

Nathaniel Street (left) and Ari-Pekka Mähönen (right) share the SPPS Early Career Award. From personnel.upsc.se and www.helsinki.fi

“I was first surprised and only some hours later I realised how happy I was,” recalls Nathaniel Street about the moment he was informed that he had won the SPPS Early Career Award. Throughout his studies at University of Southampton in the UK, Street has cooperated closely with Umeå University, where he is now assistant professor and he really enjoys it: “I have found the plant community in Scandinavia to be massively encouraging, open, friendly and motivating.” He has already published 23 peer reviewed papers – one of them as joint first author in Nature in 2013 – and his focus has always been on genetics of Populus and Norway spruce. To have clear goals is very important to him and if he could go back in time and give himself some advice it would be: “Never stop applying for grants and improving your writing style no matter how demotivating and demoralising the rejections are.”

The other winner of the SPPS Early Career Award is Ari-Pekka Mähönen. Despite his young age, he has also published as first author in Nature in 2014 with one of several papers describing the Arabidopsis PLETHORA transcription factors. His publication list is already 16 titles long and 4 of the papers have appeared in Nature, Science or Cell. Awards are also not new to the young scientist who won the Finnish Academy of Science award for his outstanding doctoral dissertation in 2006. Mähönen chose to work with plant development out of fascination and interest, and he believes that such feelings are essential drivers for young scientists who want to make a successful career: “I feel that the most important issue is to find a topic that interest you. If you are interested in the work that you are doing, you are most likely more resistant to the several setbacks that experimental science has to offer you.”

By Gorm Palmgren, science writer, PhD, www.palmgren.dk