Dr Barry Pogson, biochemist and molecular biologist

Dr Barry Pogson. Interview sponsored by the Australian Research Council.

Barry Pogson was born in 1962 in Moss Vale, New South Wales. After finishing high school he worked as a bank clerk for 12 months before deciding to attend university. In 1986 he received a BSc from Macquarie University where he studied ecology and land management/geography. For his honours degree he moved to the University of New South Wales. Pogson worked jointly at Macquarie University and the CSIRO Division of Horticulture on his PhD research. Pogson was awarded his PhD in 1992 for his studies of how tomatoes ripen and soften, in particular how enzymes control these processes.

From 1992-94 as a postdoctoral scientist on a joint project between the CSIRO Division of Horticulture and New Zealand, Pogson worked to understand the process of senescence in broccoli and how it is controlled by ethylene. Pogson then moved to the USA and from 1994-97 was a postdoctoral scientist with Dr Dean DellaPenna, first at the University of Arizona and then the University of Nevada. During this time he began his research into carotenoids and their function in photosynthesis. From 1997-99 he was an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Biology at Arizona State University. In 1999 Pogson was appointed to a lectureship in the School of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Australian National University and in 2001 became a senior lecturer there. He continues to investigate carotenoids in plants and how they function in plants, with an additional focus on how antioxidants affect plant development and the way plants respond to environmental stress.

Interviewed by Ms Marian Heard in 2001.


Childhood impacts and inspiration

Barry, when and where were you born?

I was born in 1962, in Moss Vale – a small country town about halfway between Sydney and Canberra, with about 3000 people in those days. I have two brothers and two sisters. (I came somewhat down the list, number four in the pecking order.)

Your parents have professional backgrounds, I believe.

Yes. Mum is a physiotherapist and Dad is a dentist, and they both worked in the local town. We celebrated their 70th birthdays just yesterday, as a sort of tribute day when we all said something about how they impacted our lives. For me, it was through their love of taking on challenges, new things, and inspiring us to think broadly and not feel limited.

Mum’s great involvement in education during her life has probably been influenced by her father, Hector McGregor, who was the foundation head of Epping Boys’ High. I didn’t know him personally, but his enormous impact on my mother has affected me indirectly. I think he has influenced quite a few of us, in different ways. For example, Geoffrey Robertson, who does the Hypotheticals series on TV, commented in a recent interview on the influence my grandfather had on his life.

What are your best memories of your school years?

Mainly of just being a feral kid running around, riding my bike up and down – the freedom you had in a small country town was just wonderful – and of doing absolutely every single sport. There was not much else to do, so you played golf, cricket, soccer, football, basketball, whatever it was, the lot.

Of my schoolteachers, I think I’d be annihilated if I didn’t mention Miss Hole! She was my second grade teacher, another person who had an impact on a lot of people. She’s still alive today, having taught generations of us.

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Attracted by plant biology and university life

At the end of year 12 you were by no means sure, I gather, that you would head into a science career.

That’s right. In my senior years I did fairly typical subjects – physics, chemistry, maths, ancient history, economics, English – after a broad range of general sciences in the earlier years. At the end of year 12 I applied to different schools at different universities across the country: Law and Economics at the ANU, Electrical Engineering at the then Institute of Technology, maybe Science somewhere. I didn’t know what to do, so I deferred everything for a year and went to work as a clerk in the local bank.

Halfway through your time as a bank clerk, you decided this wasn’t the career for you. What did you decide on instead?

Banking didn’t quite appeal to me, so that helped to rule out economics as an option. I had always had an interest in the environment, even though it was less trendy at that stage, and I began to envisage myself as a park ranger with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, living in national parks across the state. That led me to look at biology, and eventually plant biology at Macquarie University appealed to me.

Was your undergraduate degree in ecology and land management as interesting as you expected?

Actually, more so. Academically the university was a good choice – a lot of good lecturers, a lot of enthusiasm from the staff. And the university life was fantastic. I made some lifelong friends there, and even met my wife. As members of the caving group we were crawling in overalls, covered in mud, through a cave which had really high CO2 so we were breathing rather heavily. I saw this person, and I figure if I could be attracted to her in those conditions there had to be something more to it! We became married some years later on.

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Really switched on: an Honours project on seed germination

Did completing your degree convince you that science was the career for you?

No, not really. I ended up with a short-term technician’s job at the University of New South Wales, working with Dr Anne Ashford. I was still reluctant about science, but she inspired me and eventually I studied my Honours year with her. She used to get so excited when you did something new or interesting that she gave me a real enthusiasm and love for the game. She was the first person to do that for me.

What did you do for your Honours project?

I looked at how seeds germinate: how they utilise their food reserves and break that down to take it to the growing embryo. This was important because seed germination affects yield, and also how seeds germinate – particularly, in this case, barley seeds – affects the malting quality of whiskies, beers and things like that. So understanding how seeds are kept dormant or start to malt (for the malting process in barley) is an important application for the industry.

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Tomato sandwiches: alternating research with time for consideration

You then took a year off study to consider what might be a good PhD project, before deciding to enrol at Macquarie University. What research did you do for your PhD?

That was a joint project with the CSIRO Division of Horticulture. The supervisor was Colin Brady, and the project again had some industry linkage. I was looking at how tomatoes ripen and soften, particularly which enzymes control that process and how the cell wall of a tomato is broken down. That is what makes it soften, and also develops some of its flavour.

Colin was an important mentor for me – quite an inspiring man, an extremely dedicated scientist who expected nothing less than perfection from himself and from the people around him. He definitely challenged you to think critically about your work, and he was the person who taught me most about the rigour of science: the need to be rigorous in testing your hypotheses and putting together sound experiments.

What did you do after completing your PhD?

Once again I took some time off! My wife and I went for some months’ backpacking holiday around various parts of the world, in particular South America. We walked the Inca Trail and went up to a few volcanoes and into the Amazon jungle. It was an amazing time. I looked out for tomatoes, too, because this is their ancestral home, where they are native to. So I’ve got a couple of photos of Machu Picchu and also of the occasional tomato plant growing in the wild.

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Young and beautiful: keeping broccoli good enough to eat

When you came back you did a postdoc. Did you find postdoctoral work worthwhile?

Oh yes. Whereas in your PhD years and your Honours years you are clearly identified as a student in the learning process, the postdoc equates to an internship which doctors go through at the end of their medical training, where they actually work in the hospital while gaining skills to take them to the next level – management skills, grant-writing skills and so on that we need for a sustained career in science.

This postdoc was a joint CSIRO–New Zealand project. It was in some ways related to the tomato work – how fruit and vegetables get their marketable qualities – but it focused instead on broccoli, which is an immature flower. Broccoli, like other flowers, will open and senesce, but obviously we don’t want it to do that too fast or go yellow in our fridge. I worked on understanding the process of senescence, or programmed ageing (cell death), because while we want the broccoli to get to its optimal qualities for eating, we want also to regulate that. The process is controlled by a gaseous hormone called ethylene, which is produced by fruits and vegetables like broccoli. For example, putting a banana near an avocado helps ripen the avocado, because bananas produce most of this ethylene gas. So we are looking at controlling the timing of this hormone.

This is important for the marketing process. What we may not realise when we buy good fruit and vegetables off the shelf is that about 30 per cent of fruit and vegetable produce is lost in the marketing chain between harvest and our kitchen table. This is an enormous wastage, with both ecological and cost effects. Controlling the way fruit and vegetables deteriorate, and keeping them longer in the marketing chain, will help reduce the losses.

Also, if the shelf life can be extended long enough it will give us more export opportunities. New Zealand was particularly interested in this because they had quite a strong broccoli industry and they were looking to build more markets into Japan.

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Off to the desert, not in exile but for carotenoid research

Your next postdoc took you to Tucson, Arizona, where you worked with another important mentor. What was special about him?

Dean DellaPenna was such an enthusiastic character. He was quite a young scientist –only a few years older than I was – but very successful. This was a new lab which he was just starting up, and also the project he put me onto was one that he hadn’t had going before, so we were both learning together, which was a fun way to do things. He is a very talented scientist, and a good friend. I had a lot of good times with him.

We were starting to look at much more molecular biology and genomics, although we wouldn’t have used the word ‘genomics’ at that time. The project was on the pigments called carotenoids. For example, beta-carotene is the orange colour of carrots; the red colour of tomatoes is another carotenoid. These are not just important for the colour in fruit and vegetables, but absolutely critical for plant function. Without them, plants would not survive on Earth and so there would be no life on Earth. Also, they are essential for our human diets. We get vitamin A from carotenoids, and their antioxidant properties are important for our health.

You followed Dean DellaPenna to Reno to continue this research, I believe.

That’s right. When he took a job there, I went from a low desert with extremely hot days to a cooler, high desert which had snow on the ground on Christmas Day – which was kind of fun. But by then the project was going well, Dean and I had had some good papers out of the work, and I was also starting to look for jobs elsewhere.

I got offered an assistant professorship at Arizona State University, in Phoenix, which is just a couple of hours north of Tucson. That was a great job. I was working with a centre which is quite famous internationally for its very large collection of people working on aspects of photosynthesis, for which carotenoids are essential. The team in my lab at that stage built up to about where it is now, about half a dozen people. And the centre as a whole had maybe 60 to 80 people in it – a dozen or so academic staff and then the various students and postdoctoral fellows and support staff involved with the program.

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An ideal mix? American drive and Australian commonsense

By this time you’d had a fair range of experience in America. How would you compare working in Australia and working in America?

America definitely has more funding, and that is a real problem for Australian science. Australian science definitely punches above its weight, but it has had to do that more and more as funding has declined in the last decade.

America takes much more of a long-term view in science. Australia has got very heavily into immediate expected outcomes, whereas America is taking a longer-term attitude, with a vision, an understanding that basic science actually drives an economy. On my office wall I’ve got a letter which talks about the need to fund basic research. It says that basic research is fundamental, the engine for an economy, and we shouldn’t just be focusing on applied research. This was written in the mid-’90s, at a time when America’s economy was bleeding red ink, yet it is signed not by someone from a science academy or some frustrated professor but actually by the CEOs of about a dozen major multinational companies. And that is the difference.

It is no coincidence that Silicon Valley is next to Stanford University in Berkeley. It grew out of the basic research done on those campuses. In much the same way, genomics has grown out of the campuses and different places across the country; the biotechnology industry is closely linked to universities, and it has grown out of those links. So the applied money follows the basic money. If the basic research is cutting-edge, it leads to breakthroughs and innovations that bring the applied money.

Is the American environment more competitive because of the commercial aspects?

It is definitely more competitive – and more intense. It seems to be in the nature of Americans to be a more driven society. I have often joked that the strength and the weakness of Australia is our phrase, ‘She’ll be right, mate.’ Certainly it is healthy for us to have a more relaxed attitude at times, but it can also be our downfall. Sometimes things aren’t right; they need to be fixed. If we can find a balance between the drive and motivation of America and the relaxed and sensible attitude of Australia, this will be a very good place to live.

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The roles of photosynthesis, antioxidants and carotenoids

What caused you to return from Phoenix to Australia?

Family reasons were strong. By that stage I had three children, and my wife and I were keen on letting them know who their grandparents were – that they lived not on an aeroplane but actually in a place not too far away from them. Academically, too, coming to the ANU was a great move. It’s a good place to be.

You currently have a lectureship at the ANU and are involved in research. What are you working on?

My project is still an extension of the work I started with Dean DellaPenna: how carotenoids function in plants. It is taking a broader view now, looking at how antioxidants as a whole affect both plant development and the way a plant can respond and survive under environmental stress – things like excess light, excess temperature, drought, all the sorts of things our farmers have to deal with routinely. Antioxidants act as safety valves for a lot of these processes, especially for photosynthesis, which is the key process for a plant. How much energy it makes is how fast it can grow. But if it doesn’t make the energy the right way, or if it is under too much light or extremes of temperature, then the photosynthesis process won’t function properly. And if it doesn’t function properly, the plant needs safety valves. These carotenoids and other molecules like vitamin C and vitamin E act as safety valves, giving a way to get rid of the excess energy and stop the formation of free radicals that damage the plant and impair growth.

Antioxidants play a similarly important role in our human diet. Carotenoids are linked to protection against certain cancers, for instance. The vitamin A role of carotenoids is critical for human health, absolutely essential. Another such process is macular degeneration of the eye. The same carotenoids that are involved in acting as a safety valve in plants are found in the centre part of our eye, the macula. Age-related blindness is the most common cause of blindness in the elderly, and that has been correlated with deficiencies in these two carotenoids. So animals – in particular, humans – have taken advantage of the same pigments as plants have adapted as safety valves, and it seems that we are using the safety valves too.

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Attributes to bring to the profession of science

What skills and qualities do you think are important in science today?

There are some generic ones. Enthusiasm is important, and so is commitment. You have got to like what you do, and enjoy it, because this is a profession that can often take some personal sacrifices. But it can also be extremely rewarding.

Enjoying challenges is something that will attract people to science. I have mentioned that I did a lot of sport. In some ways, the challenge of doing something in science, and of achieving, takes the same attitudes of competition as in sport: it’s doing your best, finding a new way of doing something, a new way of getting to the edge.

In terms of techniques, a broad training is important. We encourage our biologists to come in with physics and chemistry – computing is going to be helpful too – and to learn a broad spectrum of biology and a broad spectrum of techniques. That is an advantage because we are in an explosive era for biology. Genomics programs, with the Human Genome Project, are happening across all areas of biology. The organism I have worked on has had its genome sequenced before the human genome, as have a lot of bacteria species. This has required massive amounts of data to be integrated and coalesced into a database, but you can only do so much with a computer. You need to be able to bring that knowledge together and then think of how to use it and how to apply different tools to answer questions – and all this in a much more rapid way, now that we have tools and technology that we didn’t have a decade ago. I think having those different techniques behind you will help you figure out the right questions and the right way to ask them, to get the answers.

The communication of science is another important technique, but I think the science community as a whole is bad at that. Individuals are very good at getting out into the media, but a lot of us spend too much time in our office and don’t know how to communicate well. Increasingly, it seems, we live in a country which wants to see a return for any dollar it invests. Agriculture has without doubt returned multiple-fold the dollars that have been invested in it over the years, but the community is not necessarily aware of that. We need to be much better at taking an economic rationalist approach, but in a genuinely rational way: not looking for returns in science on a 1-year time frame but on a 10-year, 30-year or 40-year time frame.

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Sharing and building on scientific expertise

You have been fortunate enough to have several influential mentors. Now that you are in a teaching role and involved with students yourself, is it important for you, in turn, to be a mentor?

Absolutely. It’s one of the more enjoyable parts of the job, actually. I enjoy watching students develop and start to grow as a scientist, whether they are the graduates and Honours in my labs or the undergraduates I teach. To me, the mentoring role isn’t just about what goes on in the laboratory or teaching people to be scientists. It’s also nice just to feel helpful. At times, doing esoteric research or any research that feels important can be a fairly introspective thing, and it’s good to have the human contact again. I guess it comes back to the role of education and helping people, and the community service ethos my parents gave me, even just by talking to an undergraduate student who is stressed out about their work or having problems at home and things like that. And that part of the role I enjoy too.

Science today is very much a matter of teamwork. The days of being an individual in science are becoming shorter and shorter. In fields such as photosynthesis there are specialty groups and specialty equipment, which is why you tend to have centres like this one at ANU and the one we had at Arizona. It’s very multidisciplinary, going from physics through to biochemistry and molecular biology and to ecophysiology, ecology. You depend on each other, and the best groups work together as a team. The best scientists are going to be able to draw on each other’s expertise and grow bigger than the sum of their individual parts.

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The enjoyment and rewards of a continuing life in science

Clearly you enjoy your research and teaching work. What else gives you enjoyment?

I’ve always enjoyed bushwalking and getting out for things like that, but now my primary interest is my life with my three kids and spending time with my wife. And it’s more watching soccer from the sideline than playing soccer or other sports as I used to. There’s a strong spiritual aspect to my life that is important for me, as well.

Travel is one of the rewarding aspects of a science career. It was a wonderful opportunity to be able to live in America, and it is wonderful to be able to attend conferences across the world in places as diverse as Europe (especially Hungary), America, the UK, Asia. You build up a network of friends and colleagues across the world, people that you work with but you may only see every year or two. And there are the challenges of science, and the discovery. To be able to feel the achievement side of it is very rewarding.

The profession still has a lot of freedom in it, too. I quite enjoy the autonomy, the fact that you can manage your own program, you can decide which areas of work interest you and follow those. In a way, it’s a bit like running your own small business and deciding which area of work you are going to focus on.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

Hopefully, still here, doing more of the same. I think this area of research will interest me for quite a while. Increasingly it will diverge, I should think, into crop species such as wheat and barley.

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