In conversation with Professor Min Chen

Professor Min Chen is considered to be the world expert in the biology and biochemistry of photosynthetic cyanobacteria that utilise alternative pigments to chlorophyll a. In 2011 she was awarded the Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year for her discovery of chlorophyll f in the cyanobacteria collected from rock-like stromatolites of Shark Bay, Western Australia.

What do you study and what questions are you trying to answer in your work?

Chen_Portrait in labThe focus of my research is the red-shifted chlorophylls in photosynthesis and their potential application in improving the efficiency of photosynthesis for bioenergy and agriculture.

My research interests are primarily concerned with elucidating the molecular and biochemical mechanisms of the energy-storing reactions and photo-regulatory processes in photosynthetic organisms, especially the function of red-shifted chlorophylls in oxygenic photosynthetic organisms (cyanobacteria and algae).

We exploit the relative simplicity of oxygenic photosynthetic bacteria (cyanobacteria) or unicellular algae to study the light-harvesting systems, natural variation of the light-harvesting strategy, energy transfer and the function/structure of the pigment-protein complexes involved in these processes.

As a part of the Centre, my team and I are now increasingly concentrating on improving light harvesting efficiency by extending the photosynthetic active solar spectral region, enhancing light penetration into crop canopies and reducing the wastage of excess sunlight.


Who or what influenced your decision to work in science and how?

I have been always really fond of science. Since I was a girl, I was always curious about how things work, about what is behind everything. So for me, doing science has been just a way to follow my dream.


Chen_flasks Green liquidApart from science, what are you passionate about?

I do enjoy working in the lab. The lab is my extended “kitchen”. When you are there, sometimes these magical situations happen – when you are the first person to know something, to see something that no other human has seen or known before. That is really exciting.

I also enjoy cooking, knitting, travelling, seeing new cultures. All these activities fulfil my curiosity  and all of them are about putting things together, knitting them to construct something new, in a similar ways that science does.



What is the role of technology in your job?

Technology is a very important part of my work and one that makes it quite challenging, as it is very difficult to keep up with the current speed of technological change.

You have to have an open eye for all the new technology in your area of study. That means to keep learning new things all the time and the list is endless: biochemistry, spin, purification, separation of pigments, proteomics, gene sequencing, bioinformatics, molecule separation techniques, etc.

It used to be that one person will learn the use of one machine in his or her life, not anymore. We need to learn to use lots of technologies all the time.

How much translation and how much photosynthesis does your job involve?

My team and I are working mainly on the side of understanding fundamental things about what is happening at the start gate of the photosynthetic process.

We try to understand the mechanisms behind the process rather than the application of that knowledge.

We still missing fundamental pieces in our understanding of how plants capture light and without this knowledge we can’t get to the following step , which is the translation. One day all the basic understanding we are producing, will permit other people to improve the process and translate them into crop plants, like wheat and rice.


What do you enjoy most about being a scientist? What do you enjoy least?

The thing that I enjoy most about my work is working in the lab. I don’t like computer work nor filling forms. Unfortunately, in my position I am the person responsible of handling the papers while the other researchers at work handle the tubes. I try to manage this by having my own project and giving each of my staff their own responsibility for one project. That way everyone shares the exciting and the boring parts a bit.

I also enjoy enormously working at the University. Honestly, I don’t know how the world is outside a University environment. I have been studying/working in universities, I like university environments and I feel very comfortable in them.


Have you had a Eureka moment?

I have. Probably the discovery of chlorophyll f is one of my best known eureka moment, but as I said before, when you work in science, little Eureka moments are part of your work.  As a scientist, you have to work hard and be patient and they finally happen.


What are you reading these days?

“The structural basis of biological energy generation”, a fascinating book. I am writing a book review that will be published soon.

Editor’s note: Since the time of this interview Min Chen’s book review has been published in Photosynthesis Research. See the full article here

Min Chen, Book Review : Martin F. Homann-Marriott (ed.): The structural basis of biological energy generation. Photosynthesis Research 2015