By Natalia Bateman, January 2019

Standing in the same valley where the Green revolution was born, Viridiana smiles to the camera, while taking notes about the field of wheat that surrounds her. Viridiana Silva-Perez has spent long hours in wheat fields like this both in Mexico and Australia measuring how wheat plants capture and reflect sunlight.

Credit: Viridiana Silva-Perez, CSIRO

I ask her to describe her path to Canberra as a CSIRO plant physiologist. The response is a voyage that includes several continents, languages and interests and where science is the only constant.

“I don’t remember being particularly interested in science as a child, however, I remember being fascinated with travelling to other places and even as a very small girl I wanted to go to the University to learn,” she recalls.

“I studied my high school in Texcoco, a city near Mexico City, which has an interesting system linked to the agricultural college of the Chapingo Autonomous University. It was then when I met a researcher who amazed me. She dazzled our class talking about her biological work to us in such a cool way that I thought: I would like to try this. She was a strong character, who injected us with the powerful feeling of being able to do everything we really desired.”

This encounter motivated Viridiana to participate in a science high school competition where she won a trip to a youth forum in France, to present her first poster in English. “This really opened my mind and from that point, my main focus was on how to return to that country”.

From wine to wheat

Viridiana chose plants and crops from the twenty careers related to agriculture offered by her University and following her dream; she returned to France in an exchange program to study viticulture. “I worked in a small winery near Angers, to study all the aspects of viticulture from working in the vineyard, to pruning, fermentation, packing and of course, tasting.”

“I then got a scholarship to study in Paris for a year. It was a really challenging, probably hardest time in my life, getting used to a new language, not only to French but to the new language and methods of molecular biology. I learnt a lot, but by the end, I was exhausted, and decided to return to Mexico where I spent two years doing a master’s degree.”

It was then when I met Matthew Reynolds from the International Maize and Wheat improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and it was through that connexion that my life turned in an unexpected direction towards Australia, working with three large institutions working on plant science research: CIMMYT, ANU, and CSIRO.

Viridiana’s PhD project focused on how to measure photosynthesis in plants, that is, how plants take sunlight and convert it into sugars such as leaves and fruits. The standard technique requires hours of painstaking measurements, so Viridiana developed a new, faster technique.

“Essentially, we measured the colour of light reflected from leaves, which contains information about many leaf properties, including photosynthesis. The advantage of this method is that it is non-destructive and quick, allowing the measurement of many plants to map populations and identify useful genes for improving crop production.”

It takes researchers 20 minutes per leaf to obtain part of this information using traditional methods. Now, with this methodology, in an hour they can measure about 100 leaves.

This technique allows scientists to measure the engine’s size inside plant cells. It permits them to ask very useful questions about what is happening inside the plant, for example, if the plant can obtain more carbon for the amount of water it uses.

Diverse escapes from science

However, not everything is science for Viridiana. In order to keep your sanity during the four years of a PhD, researchers need to find other activities and pleasures outside academia. For Viridiana these escapes appeared in the form of water, dancing and observing people.

“I love water, I am definitely a water person,” she says. “A PhD in a foreign country can be a stressful time, so to relax, I just swim. Swimming allowed me to meet people who didn’t talk about science and it was also a door through Australian culture. At University you relate mainly to foreigners and ANU is very multicultural. I was looking for Australians and I couldn’t find them! I finally found them in a swimming pool and I went into swim competitions, with a really nice team.”

She then decided to venture to deeper, saltier waters.

“I began doing scuba diving and I went to the Great Barrier Reef and became addicted to the sensation of being weightless, hypnotised by that fascinating world, I was exhausted but couldn’t stop watching the fish and the coral.”

“My other escape was Latin dancing: I learnt all the styles salsa, tango, cha-cha and bachata.

Finally I find it fascinating to observe scientists, analyse researchers”, says Viridiana laughing. “I really enjoy working with others. I like to observe what they are doing and how they do things what makes them successful scientists. During my PhD, I used to observe my supervisor John Evans, during our long hours of discussions about the project. I used to stop and think: How is that I couldn’t see that?”


The scientific path

Today, Viridiana works as a postdoctoral researcher in CSIRO, the largest science organisation in Australia and wheat still her main focus.

“Currently I am working in a wheat project grant funded by Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), to find tools to measure faster for photosynthesis traits The idea is to assess if breeders and other scientists can use these techniques.”

“During this postdoc, I need to prove how the technique I developed during my PhD can work in a bigger scale. Now we have a population of 250 wheat genotypes in 500 plots. We are trying to see if it is feasible for breeders to use it and work out precisely the differences in the quality of the data produced with this technique”.

“One of the things I have enjoyed the most working as a researcher has been the opportunity to work with people who think in a very different way. In the project, I was working with a modeller from the University of Queensland. We were essentially talking in different languages, he as a modeller and myself as a physiologist and it became a great exercise of translation.”

“I really like science and I want to continue on this path. It is not an easy path as it gets progressively more challenging, but I am determined to continue.”