How Cell Biologists Work with Dominique Bergmann: Working 'out of the mainstream' to study conserved biology

1) Dominique Bergmann: The obligatory scientist in front of microscope pose (photo by Yan Gong, PhD student in my lab)

Our featured cell biologist this month is Dominique Bergmann, a Professor of Biology at Stanford University and Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The Bergmann Lab uses the model organism Arabidopsis thaliana (a small flowering plant), along with other plant species, to study the fundamentals of development. Plants essentially never stop growing (termed indeterminate growth), so they provide an excellent model to study development in action.

By combining varied cell biology techniques, such as imaging, with genetics and genomics approaches, the lab leverages plants to explore conserved biological principles. The Bergmann Lab recently discovered a mechanism that allows plants to regulate development (of leaf pores) in response to an environmental cue (heat) (Lau et al. Current Biology, 2018). In this work, they show that a protein considered the master temperature sensor in plants can sense an increase in environmental temperature and relay this information within cells, resulting in the development of fewer leaf pores and thereby avoiding excess water loss during hot conditions. Last year, the lab used a more evolutionary approach to cell biology to reveal that in cereals (plants like wheat or rice) a protein called MUTE has gained the ability to move from cell to cell, and this enables cereal crops to be much more tolerant of drought (Raissig et al. Science, 2017). In addition to presenting an agricultural breakthrough, this finding demonstrates the evolution of a powerful mechanism for survival that arose through a simple gain of protein function. Bergmann is the recipient of many awards, including the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the Charles Schull Award from the American Society of Plant Biologists, and election into the National Academy of Sciences. You can hear Bergmann talk about her science on iBiology.

1) Dominique Bergmann: The obligatory scientist in front of microscope pose (photo by Yan Gong, PhD student in my lab)

For those interested, other interviews with Bergmann were recently published in Current Biology and The Node.

Let’s start with your Name: Dominique Bergmann @stanfordstomata

Location: Stanford University, in sunny northern California

Position: Professor of Biology (also HHMI Investigator)

Current Mobile Device(s): iPhone 6 with cracked screen

Current Computer(s): Various projects require multiple platforms, so we’ve got Linux and Windows machines for imaging and proteomics software and a Mac Laptop so I can fit in with all the university scientists at conferences.

What kind of research do you do?

I’d call myself a developmental biologist working on plants. I am most interested in how decisions at the individual cell level influence tissue behavior (and vice versa). Our group uses the development of stomata—small “valves” in the epidermis of plant leaves—as a model system to address questions about cell identity, cell polarity, cell-cell communication and the impact of environmental information on developmental decisions. One of the wonderful things about plants is that they are continually making new organs, and stomata are on the leaf surface so you can watch the entire process of their development unfold in real time with live-cell imaging—capturing details of individual cells as well as the whole tissue.

What is one word that best describes how you work?


Scientific Image: I am cheating a bit here; with this amazing image of sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) taken by Paul Bump, a PhD student with Chris Lowe at Stanford’s Hopkin’s Marine Station. Ulva makes flat, leaf-like structures to capture sunlight for photosynthesis. The image is autofluorescence of pigments used in that process (green) and a dye to mark the outlines of cells (grey). Like the epidermis of plants, all the cells you see are lineally related, but unlike plants, there aren’t stomata. We know in Arabidopsis, the stomatal lineage is what divides to provide most of the leaf cells, so who is dividing here? Is there a leading edge? Do cells in the middle divide? We don’t yet work on this alga, but I find it inspirational. Also, consider this an advertisement that I am willing to teach about plant/algal biology at any Marine station that will take me.

What excites you most about your current work?

Because stomata function in exchanging atmospheric carbon dioxide with water that has traveled from the soil through the plant, they are essential for plant survival, but also (collectively) contribute quite significantly to global climate cycles. There is a long and extensive history of work on stomata in fossils, in crops, and in ecosystems. Through collaborations, we can put our work at the molecular to tissue level in a much wider context, up to even thinking about how small changes affect global climate cycles! I also get to work with fabulous people from a variety of scientific and cultural backgrounds, and this lets us see science and stomata from various angles. It doesn’t hurt that stomata and their developmental lineages are visually stunning.

Can you describe one experience from your life or training that set you on this path?

As long back as I can remember, I was always a bit out of the mainstream and was always attracted to the little-explored corners. Cell and developmental biology is fairly understudied in plants compared with animals, and I think comparative approaches are really valuable—it’s important to realize there are many ways to solve most problems (and where all organisms we’ve studied converge on the same answer, that’s pretty interesting, too). Two more directed experiences that set me on this path might be: 1) as an undergraduate, I was forced to take Plant Development as a prerequisite for a class I thought I really wanted to take, but Plant Development taught by Ian Sussex, turned out to be my favorite science course ever, and 2) as a PhD student, I spent a summer in Woods Hole at the MBL embryology course, which really reinvigorated my love of science at a time I was feeling frustrated with my own project. Ironically, I didn’t end up working on ANY of the organisms I learned about in the course (no plants then, nor now), but I think it awakened my love for nature’s weird and wonderful.

What is one part of your current position or project that you find challenging?

I struggle with the academic reward system and how to work on the “swing for the fences” projects where you anticipate there will be a big innovation, but only after a long investment period that typically undervalues the courageous souls that put in the early effort to get things going. Another thing that concerns me is the technologization of biology; not that technology isn’t a major driving force, but I am seeing a trend toward projects that emphasize technology-building over biological question-answering. And this fits in a time frame that cycles with investors (e.g., IT vs. biotech). I feel we need to make a stand to keep the biology—messy and unpredictable and not likely to work on short deadlines as it is—at the forefront.

2) Her Workspace: my office; in the window are fused glass images of stomata made by Diego Wengier, former postdoc, and my brother Marcel Bergmann (photo by Dominique Bergmann)

Do you have any specific advice about establishing or running a lab for new or aspiring faculty? 

It’s useful to be flexible about a lot of thingsà there are many ways to clone something, and there are many different internal clocks. But at the same time, be rigid about organizational things: have a clear convention for naming reagents and files and a clear plan for archiving data (format, backups, indexes). People ALWAYS underestimate how much time it takes to get things in a format that other people can understand when they leave, and no one is motivated to get all those files in order as they are leaving.

On the people front, it’s astonishing how much things change when you become a lab head/professor, and while you don’t think you’ve changed, peoples’ perceptions of your words do. On the plus side, your jokes are now funny, but on the minus side, offhanded comments take on weight you didn’t expect, and students who are feeling unsure of themselves will read so much more into what you say, and what you don’t say, than you ever intended. By now, I’ve worked with more than 30 people in my lab and every single one was different. It’s worthwhile (and fun!) to learn what motivates them and adapt your mentoring strategies to help produce the best science and scientists.

What (if any) are your preferred methods for training your students to become independent scientists?

In labs like mine where there are people with formal training in different fields and with different technical expertise, it’s pretty obvious that our collective knowledge far exceeds my own. I try to give people responsibility for being the local expert in their subdomain, both because my brain can’t store all that info, but also I find it helps them feel confident in one area and more willing to ask for help and learn from their colleagues’ expertise in other areas. For postdocs, this is usually related to their previous training. For students, it may be a technique they have learned from classmates or literature or seminars they’ve been exposed to outside lab. I encourage people to find, attend, and write travel grants for meetings they go to without me.

 What’s your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?

Whether intentional or not, I often combine things: Exercise = commute to work by bike. Hobbies = cooking or home improvement projects. World travel = scientific conferences.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager (digital or analog)?

Moleskine weekly planner to let me write down and then cross out tasks and lots of post-it notes to modify my unrealistic expectations about efficiency.

What apps/software/language/tools can’t you live without?

Fiji for imaging. R. Google maps. Google translate with the camera feature that lets you translate whatever is in front of you immediately. Twitter (only science twitter, obviously. Ahem). 

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? And how do you use it?

Electric water kettle—for endless cups of tea

When/ where do you find the most creative inspiration for your research?

Outside—while hiking or biking in most parts of the world you can’t help realizing that you are surrounded by plants, some living in pretty precarious situations. I try to attend a pretty broad selection of seminars and scientific conferences that also stretch my brain: these might be development (mostly animals), or modeling, or focused on more translational work in plants.

What is one thing you never fail to do (in or outside of lab), no matter how busy you are?

I always try to get outside and be active.

Who is one of your scientific heroes, and what is one quality you admire in that person?

Is it too obsequious if I say Bob Goldstein (your PI at UNC)? What I really like about Bob is that he is incredibly creative. He has a deep knowledge of the classic and obscure literature and then revisits the fundamental questions about cells and organisms that captured people’s attention 100 years ago with new technology. And how many people can list protocols for backyard paint spinners and varmint detectors (Make magazine) among their publications?

What do you like to read, learn, or think about outside of lab?

I read a fair bit of contemporary fiction as well as non-fiction about the politics and culture of different parts of the world; this is often connected to wherever my sister and her family are posted in their State Department jobs. So I read a lot about dictators, unfortunately.

I also love build-it-yourself projects and entertain some fantasies of building a tiny home, or at least retrofitting an airstream trailer.

Are there any causes or initiatives in or outside of science that you are particularly passionate about?

I am incredibly lucky to be where I am, supported by institutions that give me freedom and resources and that are attractive to motivated and creative students/researchers. I recognize how unusual this is, and I struggle with how to make such a situation possible for more people. I would like more people to be exposed to science and scientific thinking in their daily lives. There are a number of ways to do this: We can improve the quality of science education in school settings, for example, what iBiology is doing with its new set of flipped lecture curricula or what Khan Academy has done for younger students. But I think it’s essential that we also get science out of the classroom and make it something everyone can engage in, and that people aren’t afraid of. If we can get people to engage on a daily basis with technology (hello, smartphones), can we do the same with science?

What’s your sleep routine like?

I wake up when the sun comes up, so right now I’m an early morning person, and in the winter, less so. I inherited the Bergmann trait of being able to fall asleep in unlikely places at random times, so I end up being pretty good with travel.

What’s the best advice you’ve received or some advice you’d like to share with trainees?

Best advice:

-Get used to doing many things “well enough” so you have the energy and creativity to do a few things really well.

-If your senior colleagues offer to help you, take them up on their offers! But also try to make your requests discrete tasks that can be accomplished in one sitting. Nearly everyone can find 20 minutes to look over a Specific Aims document or to discuss a particular mentoring dilemma. An open-ended “I need advice on where to go with this half written grant” will tax even the most generous of colleagues.

About the Author:

Kira Heikes is a graduate student in Bob Goldstein's laboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is currently studying embryonic development in tardigrades. Twitter: @KiraTheExplora Email: