From plant genetics to publishing, over 30 years in science

Sheila McCormickThis is a guest post by Sheila McCormick, an editor for BMC Plant Biology. To mark International Women’s Day, she takes a look back over her career in plant genetics and publishing.

When I started college at Illinois State University,  I thought I might become a high school biology teacher. But as the semesters went on I started to consider going to graduate school. The professor who taught Genetics, Dr. Herman Brockman, was an inspiration – I basically fell in love with Genetics and decided to do a PhD.

I first started graduate school at Univ. Texas-Austin, intending to work on fruit fly genetics. As an undergraduate I had read a paper in the journal Genetics about the gene that controlled eye color in fruit flies, written by Dr. Burke Judd, a professor at UT-Austin.

But then I transferred to University of Missouri to work on maize genetics – why? Well, I had graduated from college in December and had had a wonderful summer job at Missouri, working for Dr. Ed Coe, a maize geneticist, before starting at Texas in the fall. When I decided not to stay at Texas, doing a PhD with Dr. Coe was an obvious choice. I completed my PhD in1978 on the genetics of purple pigments (such as those you see on Indian corn). I submitted my thesis on my 26th birthday, and since then I have been a plant geneticist.

Since 1985 I have worked on plant reproduction. I started this topic when I was a research scientist at Monsanto, in St. Louis, studying genes that were specifically expressed in tomato pollen. Monsanto graciously let me take that project with me when I started my own lab, at the Plant Gene Expression Center, a joint effort of the USDA Agricultural Research Service and UC-Berkeley.

In addition to tomato, we have also worked with corn and with Arabidopsis (a plant in the same family as broccoli), which is a model organism because its genome was the first plant genome to be sequenced and because it has a short life cycle, making genetics experiments faster. Some of our recent areas of research include studying the signals sent between the pollen tube and the female, gene expression in plant sperm, and how pollen-specific gene expression is controlled.

I first became an editor of a science journal (Plant Journal) in 2003. For more than a year I had been pointing out to the chief editor, Harry Klee (who had been a colleague at Monsanto), that there weren’t very many women on the editorial board. Eventually, and possibly to shut me up, he asked me to join the editorial board.

I was also an editor at other journals, such as Planta and Plant Physiology, and am still an editor at Plant Journal, at BMC Plant Biology and Molecular Plant, and at some new journals such as eLIFE, Faculty 1000 Research and PeerJ. I really enjoy editorial work and try to help authors make their papers easy to read as well as scientifically rigorous.

I first became interested in teaching writing in 1993, when I sat in on a workshop that Mimi Zeiger taught at UC-San Francisco; she has written a very useful book – Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers – that I use in two graduate-level courses at UC-Berkeley: Scientific Reasoning and Logic, and Grantwriting and Research Presentations, and often use examples from her book when I teach short writing courses in other countries.

You can find out more about Sheila on the BMC Plant Biology website.

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