Dr Helen Fones

Published on: 30 May 2017

As a Research Fellow in Biosciences, plant pathologist Dr Helen Fones's research looks at fungal and bacterial plant pathogens.

Dr Fones will be taking part in the Soapbox Science event - a day which showcases the research of women who are making significant contributions to the scientific community. 

What is your current research about?

I am a plant pathologist – I study the micro-organisms which infect plants, trying to understand how they cause disease, as well as how the plant's immune system detects and responds to infection. I am involved in several interrelated research projects at the moment. In one, I am studying the fungus responsible for ash dieback disease. Similar work looks at a fungus (Fusarium) that causes a really worrying disease of banana trees.

In both cases, I'm trying to unravel the lifecycle of the fungus to understand how it spreads from tree to tree and how it infects, as well as trying to understand why some strains of the fungus are more aggressive than others. This understanding should help us to find out which control methods might work best and when the fungus is likely to be most vulnerable.

Most of my efforts, however, currently go into the study of Zymoseptoria tritici, the fungus that causes the most economically important disease of wheat in Europe (Septoria leaf blotch). My work and that of my colleagues in the lab has uncovered some really surprising things about this fungus and the ways in which it interacts with the wheat plant.

How can a member of the public understand the impact of this research?

Everyone knows what its like to get ill; our bodies interact with microbes all the time. Mostly, features like our waterproof skin or our stomach acid keep the microbes out, or kill them before we know anything about them. When some slip through, we get ill, and it's up to our immune systems to fight off the invaders. Its exactly the same for plants. The environment is full of fungi, bacteria, and viruses, many of which are able to live on the surface of plants, and a few of which can get into the plant and cause disease.

Just like our own bodies, plants are able to keep most microbes out, and fight off those that get in, using systems analogous in many ways to our own immune system. But why should anyone care about plant health? Some members of the public might remember Dutch Elm Disease, which, in the 1980s, killed most of our elm trees, changing landscapes forever. Trees are an important part of our environment, but at the moment, we can't protect them from disease epidemics: ash trees are seriously threatened at present by ash dieback disease. If we lose those trees, it will again change the urban and rural landscapes we love. With banana trees there is another concern, because, although they are not part of our landscape here in the UK, bananas are the UK's favourite fruit: we eat five billion a year! And with wheat, that link is still more profound: it is a staple part of our diet.

What was your journey into academia and did you encounter any prejudices?

I attended a bog-standard comprehensive school, after which I was lucky enough to get a place at St Hugh's College, Oxford, to study Biological Sciences. I developed a keen interest in food security and plant conservation, and studied these further during an MSc at the University of Birmingham. At that time, I was sure that I didn't want to go into research, but after studying plant ecology and conservation in theory and in the field, I felt the inexorable pull of the research lab. Again, I was lucky: a PhD project was advertised, in Oxford, studying the ecological implications of disease resistance in a quirky group of plants that grow on metal-contaminated soils.

You can follow Dr Fones on Twitter.

My research career began there! My supervisors, Professor Gail Preston and Professor Andrew Smith, were great mentors; both inspired scientifically and both supported, and continue to support, my aspirations in science. At the end of my PhD studies I got married and moved to Berlin with my husband. Although I allowed my career to play second fiddle at this time to my husband's, following him to Germany, I was fortunate enough to be able to work as a postdoc in the lab of Professor Tina Romeis, studying plant disease resistance. My husband has since quit science, but I don't regret following him – I learned a lot in Germany! We moved back to the UK when I obtained a postdoc position in the lab of Professor Sarah Gurr in Exeter. I have had, as you can see, a succession of fantastic female mentors, supervisors, and bosses.

I wouldn't say that I've encountered any material prejudice, but I am becoming increasingly aware that, as a small and relatively young female, it can be hard to get established scientists to take me seriously. I feel I have to prove myself more than men at my career stage, as I always have to lay the groundwork first – too often, people assume I'm a student, when in fact I finished my postgrad studies in 2011; worse, I have to fight for recognition as a serious career-minded scientist. I suspect that is down to certain lazy assumptions on the part of others.

How do you think that more females can be encouraged to continue with STEM subjects?

I think we need to inspire the young – of both sexes!

I chose my career out of love – of learning, of making discoveries, and of the systems I work with. So the key is to help people fall in love, and to make sure that if they do, they don't ever question whether they will fit in or if there is a place in the world of science for them – that world is big enough for anyone committed enough to carve out a place for themselves, whatever their gender, ethnicity, or background.

It ought to be easy to inspire: science is endlessly fascinating! I think its essential to remember, though, that what fascinates each of us is different. My nieces and nephews are intrigued when they hear that I'm a scientist, but I don't often talk to them about my own work – instead, I use their questions as a jumping-off point to explore the things that interest them. As they get older, its likely that they will have questions outside of my area of expertise, at which point I think honesty is important: I will tell them I don't know! Then I will try to guide them into the wide and wonderful world of finding out the answers –or we'll find out together.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you will be talking about at the upcoming Soapbox event?

I'll be exploring some of the more amazing facts and figures that describe the interaction between the microbial world and our crops. Hopefully, Ill be able to describe and demonstrate some of the weird and wonderful ways microbes manipulate plants for their own ends, and why this threatens us, who rely on plants for food.

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