GMI Fellows – 1st Edition

GMI recognizes the recipients of fellowships, grants and awards among its PhD candidates and postdocs! The first edition of the “GMI Fellows” series portrays the fellowship holders in 2021 from the Dagdas Lab.

Jierui Zhao, PhD candidate, China

Autophagy is an important quality control pathway for plants and is also found in other eukaryotes. Jierui Zhao’s passion for plant autophagy is what led him to join the Dagdas lab at GMI for his PhD. To help carry out his doctoral research, Jierui was awarded a Doc Fellowship from the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW). Jierui’s project consists of deciphering the role of a novel interactor of the ATG8 autophagy-related family proteins in Arabidopsis. “With this work, I aim to discover novel autophagy adaptors in plants and shed light on mechanisms still unknown to this date,” states Jierui.

Jierui originates from China and obtained his Master’s degree from Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Marta Garcia León, postdoc, Spain

Amidst the rampant climate change, plants must adapt to increasingly hostile environments. These include drought and high-intensity light, both of which considerably damage chloroplasts. Plants are capable of recycling damaged chloroplasts, an essential mechanism to maintain photosynthetic activity and healthy plants. Marta Garcia León was awarded an EMBO fellowship for a postdoctoral study in the Dagdas lab on the precise mechanisms of how damaged chloroplasts are recycled in plant cells. This knowledge could allow Marta to generate plants capable of better coping with the changing environment. Asked about her motivation, Marta replied: “The idea of being on the edge of knowledge, shedding light on what is unknown yet, is what makes me tick. That feeling of being the first one ever to see something completely new for the first time!

Originally from the Spanish capital city, Marta obtained her PhD from the Spanish National Center of Biotechnology (CNB) in Madrid.

Ni Zhan, postdoc, China

Ni Zhan was awarded a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship from the European Commission to pursue postdoctoral studies in the Dagdas lab. Ni aims to identify potential substrates for a novel protein post-translational modification mechanism using proteomics. “I am always fascinated by plant autophagy pathways and protein post-translational modifications. This research will explore the crosstalk between these two mechanisms and will provide me with a deeper understanding of their interplay. This would be of great value for my future research,” elaborates Ni.

Ni obtained her PhD and acquired her first postdoc experience in her homeland, China. Her previous institution is the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China.

Juan Carlos de la Concepción, postdoc, Spain

As a member of the VIP2 program, Juan Carlos de la Concepción was awarded a VIP2 Fellowship, a joint fellowship of the European Commission and the VBC. In his postdoctoral studies in the Dagdas lab, Juan Carlos seeks to understand how cellular machines evolve and acquire new functions. “My project combines different techniques to understand the evolution of molecular machines operating in the cell,” explains Juan Carlos. Asked about his motivation to drive his complex project, Juan Carlos immediately finds a simple, yet striking thought: “We as scientists are all trying to understand the unknown. What better motivation can there be?”, he states with a radiant smile.

Juan Carlos comes originally from Spain and carried out his last postdoctoral project at The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) in Norwich, United Kingdom.

On research at GMI and the VBC

All four fellows find eloquent words of praise to recognize the unique work environment, support, and atmosphere on campus.

The VBC is one of the leading science hubs in Europe and GMI is a world-class plant research institute. The work environment here is very friendly. Besides, you can find various facilities and services to support your research. My work would not progress smoothly without this tremendous help and support!” exclaims Ni, before Jierui adds:

We are privileged to have multiple highly organized and well-connected facilities on campus. These enable me to use multiple advanced techniques to drive my research project.

Marta nods to her colleagues and adds: “The VBC and GMI offer a plethora of activities, both social and scientific, that make you feel comfortable on campus. I love that the VBC brings together experts from so many different fields so you can easily ask for advice or even establish collaborations.

Focusing on the technical advantages of working on campus, Juan Carlos joins in: “The great variety of expertise and technical support across campus is allowing me to apply diverse techniques, spanning from molecular biology and gene editing to biochemistry and structural biology, to address a complex biological question."

As if all this praise still falls short of describing her positive experience on campus, Marta concludes with a thought-provoking idea: “In addition, one of the things I like the most is that the VBC is very intercultural: you get exposed to a lot of points of view and different cultures that greatly enrich you as person. I wish everybody could have such an experience to become more tolerant!