Daniel Chamovitz is Dean of The George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University, Director of the Manna Center for Plant Biosciences, and Founder of the Program in Food Safety and Security. He earned his Ph.D. in Genetics at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he cloned a gene involved in the biosysnthesis of beta-carotene. As a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University, he discovered the COP9 Signalosome complex and conducted studies showing that it is essential for development in both plants and animals.
In 2012, he published his first book, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses. The book has been published in 14 languages and was voted a Top 10 science book that year on Amazon. What a Plant Knows is a journey into the often unrecognized and fascinating world of plants, teaching us how various plants perceive their surroundings, tell time, remember things, and much more. From blogs to books to online courses, Dr. Chamovitz shares his insights on communicating science to the masses.
Sullivan: As academics, we are rooted in the idea that our goal is to publish in scholarly journals for our peers, so how did the seed to write a book about plants for a general audience get into your mind?
Chamovitz: There are two parts to this answer. On the one hand, I always liked writing, and I was curious as to whether or not I could translate my experience in scientific writing into something more “popular.” I saw this as a personal challenge that I wanted to pursue. On the other hand, it really upset me how ignorant both my undergraduate students, colleagues, and the general public are to the real wonders and real importance of plant research. Often people would be shocked to hear that plants differentiate between blue and red light, but at the same time be convinced that plants like classical music. The problem, I realized, is that we plant scientists had done a rather poor job of communicating, while leaving The Secret Life of Plants as an accepted source of the botanical. I’d actually been waiting for someone else to pick up the mantle and write the scientifically valid Secret Life of Plants, but eventually I just said to myself, “Why not? Give it a try!”
Sullivan: Do you think that more faculty should branch out and write about their work so that people without a strong scientific background can appreciate the utility of basic research?
Chamovitz: I think different faculty members have different strengths and we need to know how to use these in public outreach. Not everyone is going to be an author, but everyone can engage the public at different levels and in different ways.
Sullivan: In addition to your book, What a Plant Knows, you designed an online course on the subject. Tell us more about that and how it was received.
Chamovitz: I got into this by accident. Tel Aviv University was just starting to explore how to use online “MOOC” [massive open online course] venues as a vehicle for both local teaching and international outreach. I was asked to make the first course, and knowing absolutely nothing about the medium, I was curious to explore it. It was a real eye-opening experience. I hadn’t appreciated how “real” online forums are for those involved. The interaction I had with the students around the world, and among themselves, through the class’s forums was exciting, and every bit as real as some of my in-classroom experiences. It also never occurred to me that 4 years later, this class would grow to include a second advanced one on plant biology, be completed by more than 20,000 students worldwide (and started by well over 100,000!), be employed as part of regular classes in many universities, and be incorporated into the high school curriculum of advanced biology by the Israeli Ministry of Education. So this experiment has had a much larger impact than I ever anticipated.
Sullivan: With the exception of Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors, plants are not usually anthropomorphized. I suspect that most people have the misconception that plants are as inert as a teenager on Saturday morning. After leafing through your book, are people generally surprised at how very much “alive” plants really are?
Chamovitz: I don’t agree that plants aren’t often anthropomorphized. What about the wonderful plants in Avatar? But I do agree that most people take the view that plants are little more than objects. Some who read my book, or hear my lectures, have trouble coming to terms, not with the fact that plants perceive their environment, but that we humans are rather mechanistic also! If a plant can “see” and “smell” and “feel” and even “remember,” what does that say about us?
Sullivan: You also established your own blog, The Daily Plant. We wish more scientists would blog and perhaps you can help them see the forest for the trees. Tell us why you started the blog and how it fits under the overall canopy of science communication.
Chamovitz: Again, this started as an experiment to see what blogging is. I quickly found I had a small but dedicated following, and it enabled me to say things that I can’t in my scientific publications. Bottom line—blogging is great and important. BUT—it takes much time and commitment! Since I was appointed Dean of Life Sciences three years ago, my blogging has essentially stopped, unfortunately. I did consider making a “Dean blog” about the ins-and-outs of academic politics, but that would probably kill me politically, and leave me with no friends.
Sullivan: In addition to blogging and writing a popular science book, you’ve done numerous interviews on outlets like NPR and the BBC. Do you have any pointers or advice you’d like to share with budding science communicators or academics who are thinking about taking that plunge?
Chamovitz: Yes: Hire a media advisor and take some classes before you interview. We scientists tend to qualify our statements or to give long drawn-out answers, neither of which work well in electronic media! For example, I have a friend, an excellent plant biologist, who was interviewed on TV about GMOs. He was asked, “Can you say that GMOs are 100% safe?” He answered, “I can’t say that GMOs are 100% safe, as I can’t say that cell phones or organic food is 100% safe, but the evidence shows…..” As this was a taped interview, only the first seven words were aired. Before I started engaging the media, I was petrified that I would be made to look like an absent-minded professor, so I took several hours of media training. It was an embarrassing, but worthwhile, experience!
Sullivan: I’ve read that you also enjoying playing guitar, so you might be familiar with a band from the 1980s called Poison. What was your reaction to their hit song, “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn”? I’m no botanist, but isn’t that incorrect?
Chamovitz: Great song! To the point, nearly every rose has its thorn (but there are a few mutants that don’t!)