GRAD SCHOOL DIARIES
plant molecular fellowship france

An American Graduate Student in France

Graduate school can be challenging, but it has its perks. Getting to travel and do science abroad is one of the best!

The fellowship

An academic career in the sciences can be challenging, but it also has it’s fair share of benefits. One of my favorite perks is the opportunity to travel. As a graduate student, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend meetings in California and Washington D.C. More exciting than conferences, there are also opportunities for fellowship programs in other host laboratories - basically study abroad for graduate students. One such program is the Chateaubriand Fellowship, offered by the French Embassy’s Office of Science and Technology. The goal of this fellowship is to promote French-American collaborations, and is open to all STEM fields. Through the Chateaubriand Fellowship, I was awarded six months of support to do part of my Ph.D. thesis work with a host lab in France. In July, I packed up my research and hopped across the pond to the Institut Nationale de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in Versailles, France.

Fellowships like this exist in many forms, and can be a real asset in cultivating your scientific network and broadening your academic horizons. Finding and winning a fellowship can be tricky however, as it is not always clear where to find these types of programs and there is usually a quite competitive application process. Most universities or graduate schools will have some sort of professional development office, where you can go to find resources and advice for grants and fellowships like this one.

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Fig. 1 The Chateaubriand Fellowship, named after famed French politician/writer François-René de Chateaubriand, is offered through the French Embassy in the United States. There are programs for both STEM fields and the humanities, the goal of which is to support doctoral students and promote Franco-American academic collaboration.

The science

The research I do here is part of my thesis project, and part of a related project in my host lab. I study secondary cell wall formation in grasses. All plant cells are encased in walls made mostly of cellulose, with some other polysaccharide polymers and proteins sprinkled in - this is the primary cell wall. Secondary walls develop in specific cell types at certain developmental stages. The secondary wall is much thicker than the primary wall, and contains lignin, a tough, water resistant polymer, along with lots of cellulose and other polysaccharides. Secondary cell walls are what give plants the strength to stand up straight, and form water conducting vascular channels called the xylem. For example, wood is essentially all secondary cell wall material. I am studying the genetic factors that regulate the production of this cell wall material, while my host lab has mostly focused on the characterizing the enzymes that build cell walls and the chemistry of the polymers within them. Cell wall formation is a complicated process (but super exciting!) that I will go into in detail in a later post.

We use two model systems to study this process, Brachypodium distachyon and Arabidopsis thaliana. We use these two plants because they each represent distinct parts of the plant kingdom, monocots and dicots, and both are easy to grow in the laboratory and have numerous genetic resources (fully sequenced genomes, large mutant collects, etc). Understanding how these model plants build their cell walls will allow us to extend those conclusions to their relatives that have a bit more agricultural and economic prominence. Many of the leaders in the field of cell wall biosynthesis and composition are here at INRA Versailles-Grignon, and it is their expertise that drew me to apply for this fellowship. Working with and learning from them is an invaluable opportunity from me as a young scientist, and their help is instrumental in analyzing my plants for my thesis project.

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Fig. 2 Tending to my plants in the greenhouse, Arabidopsis thaliana (top) and Brachypodium distachyon (middle). Below is a side-by-side comparison of the two model plants, Arabidopsis on the left and Brachypodium on the right.

The location

INRA is a nation-wide collection of research facilities dedicated to investigating issues related to agriculture, food security, and the environment, much like the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They partner with academic institutions as well as the private sector to address these areas through science. Their logo says it all: “INRA: Science and Impact”.

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Fig. 3 The INRA logo greets you at the gate to the INRA Versailles-Grignon campus

I am working at INRA Versailles-Grignon, the largest INRA campus, located on the edge of the Grand Parc du Versailles. It’s hard to ask for a more beautiful environment to work in - the Grand Parc is accessible just behind my dormitory, and a short walk down the trails leads you to the gardens and palace of Versailles.

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Fig. 4 A view of the Château de Versailles from the Pièce d’eau des Suisse, about a 20 minute walk from INRA.

One of my first impression when I arrived was that French science groups are hyper-organized. Not to say that U.S. institutions aren’t organized, but INRA functions on a level of inter-group cooperation on a scale that I have not witnessed back home. There are individual lab groups here, but it doesn’t feel that way. Everyone works together across labs, sharing knowledge and expertise, in a common pursuit of answering interesting and impactful questions. One of their great strengths is that they maintain various scientific platforms that are available to anyone who wants to tap into their resources to answer a question. For example, I can take my samples next door to the cytology platform where an expert helps me make perfect cross sections of my grass stems, stain them for various compounds, and do some top notch microscopy to analyze the cells. I can also walk over to the chemistry platform, where a similarly skilled team teach me how to analyze and quantify the types of sugars and other polymers in the cell walls I am working with. This sort of organized expertise helps the groups here really bang out experiments efficiently and get those meaningful results.

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Fig. 5 A cross section of Arabidopsis stem that I made with help from the cytology platform. This section is stained with phloroglucinol, a compound which turn reddish-pink when bound with lignin. The lighter pink cells in this cross section are the interfascicular fibers, with the darker pink xylem in the center of the image. Both of these tissue types make thick secondary cell walls, giving the plant structural support (fibers) and conducting water (xylem).

The people, language, and culture

I think that there is a sort of general stereotype for French people, particularly Parisians, as not especially welcoming towards tourist Americans who can’t speak a word of French. Besides one bus driver who gave me a hard time, my experience has shattered these notions. Everyone I have met here has been exceptionally kind, friendly, and helpful. The head of the cytology platform and the administrative assistant in my building lent bicycles to me and my girlfriend. A guy from the facilities workshop helped us inflate the tires, and later gave us a tour of his vegetable garden and insisted we take a box of fresh veggies home to make ratatouille. One of the graduate students found French lessons for me. The chef in the restaurant calls me “Monsieur American” and shakes my hand at lunch every day. Lunch is quite the occasion, with the entire staff stopping their experiments and eating together every day. Eating and socializing with your lab mates and collaborating teams every afternoon breeds a great sense of camaraderie with your coworkers, and I think this sort of devotion to a group mentality would be a nice thing to see adopted more at U.S. institutions.

In any science setting, your labmates are your greatest allies. I joined the secondary cell wall group, lead by Richard Sibout, and staffed with technicians Philippe, Sebastien, and engineer Kaori. They were all immediately welcoming and helpful in every way. I share an office with Sebastien, and he has become my de facto translator when my meek French abilities inevitably fail me. He also manages a huge collection of plants with induced genetic mutations, and helps run the greenhouse facilities. Kaori specializes in microscopy, and churns out beautiful cross section images and cellular patterning analyses. Philippe is the resident expert on all things relating to plant molecular biology. Working with Philippe is particularly interesting, as neither of us are fluent in the other’s language, although his English is certainly superior to my French. However, the language of science has proven a great foundation for learning! DNA extractions, polymerase chain reaction, genotyping, plant anatomy - these are all common ground for us, and as such my French laboratory vocabulary has grown significantly. However, I have also learned the importance of correct pronunciation. My attempt to read a DNA extraction protocol in French lead to me to utter the phrase “Do not aspirate the panties” which was not at all what I intended. “Le culot” (the biological pellet) and “les culottes” (women’s underwear) apparently sound the same from my American tongue, much to the amusement and confusion of my labmates. Philippe and I have also developed an array of gestures and sound effects that aid in our conversations in the lab and beyond, from gene expression studies and French geography, to alligator hunting in the southern U.S. and our mutual love of Tom Hanks movies. I didn’t expect molecular biology and Tom Hanks to be my cross-cultural touchstones, but is has worked out nicely!

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Fig. 6 Paroi secondaire (secondary cell wall) team! From left to right, Sebastien, myself, Kaori, and Philippe

Beyond my lab group, I have had the great opportunity to meet and befriend many of the French graduate students, technicians, and engineers who work here. Some of the French grad students hold a regular “cheese club”, where we indulge in the many cheeses of France and discuss their origins, manufacture, and taste - some are pretty funky! There is also a large international population here, representing the European Union as well as the larger reaches of old French imperialism. I share a dorm with a bioinformatician from Spain and a computer scientist from Tunisia. In my French class there are students from Egypt, China, and Albania. I have met researchers from Algeria, Lebanon, Canada, Haiti, Germany, Austria, and Russia. As one of the few Americans at INRA Versailles-Grignon, this has been a unique opportunity to immerse myself in a foreign culture and surround myself with people from drastically different backgrounds than my own. Learning from them, not just about scientific techniques, but about their cultural norms and worldviews is what opportunities like the Chateaubriand fellowship are all about, and it has been a great experience so far!

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