Yvette Wilson

collecting leaf tissue again

Favourite Thing: Collect and analyse data from my plants (scientific favourite thing!).



1992-1997: Girls College, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe


1998-2001: University of East Anglia where I studied ecology (BSc). 2005-2009: University of Edinburgh where I did a PhD in plant evolution

Work History:

Summer student and then Research Assistant (2001-2005) in the John Innes Centre in Norwich (plant research centre). My main project was on modelling gene interactions during plant development.


University of Dundee

Current Job:

Postdoc (title for some-one who as obtained their PhD and is working as a more experienced researcher in a group.)

Me and my work

I am identifying the genes that cause lignin synthesis in cereal stems so that we can breed barley varieties that have straw that is easier for animals to digest.

myimage1To increase food and fuel production we need to use as much of harvested crops as possible.  Cereal (maize, wheat and barley) straw is not fully utilised because it is difficult for animals to digest it .  This is because the sugars stored in the straw are locked up in a cement-like matrix that is held together by lignin.

All plants (and animals) are made up of millions of cells.  We know that within each plant cell some of the plant’s genes control lignin synthesis from a starting molecule.

myimage2(click on picture to enlarge)  This diagram shows the main parts of a plant cell.  The plant genes are made up of DNA in the nucleus.  When lignin genes are active the lignin molecule is then made in the cytoplasm and secreted into the cell wall.

It is easy to see lignin by cutting a thin section of the stem and applying a chemical stain to it (bottom pictures)






My work is to find plants with mutations in lignin genes in barley.  We can then test whether there is less or weaker lignin in these plants because of the mutations.  The other main test is whether it is easier to release the sugars from the cell walls in the straw of plants with less lignin – not to mention whether they still grow well!

myimage3 Picture of my plants which are growing at the moment to screen for mutations in lignin genes

We work on barley because it is ranked fourth in the world for total cereal harvest and our findings in barley can be repeated in other cereal species.  We aim to breed barley varieties with less lignin in their stems because animals will be able to digest the straw or the sugars that are released can be used to produce biofuel.  This will decrease our dependence on fossil fuels.

where I work… our research lab is based at the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) which has lots of glasshouses and horticultural staff to support our work.  There are several different research groups in the Plant Science department, each headed by an experienced group leader.    There are 16 people in our research group.  We focus on 2 main topics: how plants make lignin and how plants copy their genes when they want to reproduce (during meiosis).  We all do a combination of computing, testing plants and labwork.

myimage5 My colleague Sung-Yong in action – working with some barley DNA (left).

Jason and Dominic who are helping me out by extracting RNA from some barley stems.  Jason is the expert in this particular method so he’s training Dominic… and hopefully me next week myimage6 (below).

My Typical Day

Labwork, computing, reading (science), or occasionally wandering aimlessly around the glasshouses and fields whilst figuring out why an experiment doesn’t work.

I go through phases of working crazily hard for several weeks if I have big experiments going then easing off for a few weeks to sort through what I’ve done.  At the moment I’m in a ‘sorting through phase’.  As my work is so varied I will keep a little diary of a few sample days…

Wed 26th May: late start (10:30 – worked quite late yest.).  Started to catch up on my lab book (from about February – I have all my data in a rough note book and in piles of scrap paper and printouts on my desk – its going to be lost…).  Went through some  lab results with my research assistant, Sian, – we’re testing methods of extracting DNA.  Lunch in the office. PM:  Put together data on which plants I have not collected leaves from (out of 2500!).  Checked whether 2500 pots have been filled with compost for us to sow more plants tomorrow.  4:30-5:30 Went to a talk by a Professor from Australia who also works on barley cell walls.  He showed some data which makes me think that some of my experiments that I’m half way through won’t work.  Unhappy.  5:30 til about 7 – putting information on this website then home and a quick run and relax.

Thurs 27th May:  10:30 – 7pm.  Reading and preparing to give a seminar next friday, as next week will be busy.  This will be my first talk at Dundee and this is a relatively new project for me.  Therefore its very daunting as I don’t want to look like I don’t know what I’m doing, or be completely incomprehensible.  I spent the day reading chemistry and had a few moments of understanding, but not that many.  I took a small break to organise some pots of compost for a new sowing and to chat to Abbey, a colleague studying plant reproduction.

Fri 28 May: 7:30-9: Catching up on emails and scientific literature. 9-11am: sowing another 2500 seeds with Sian, to screen for mutations. 11 am – 1 pm: extracting DNA with Sian – at the same time reading while I’m waiting for chemical reactions and having lunch and catch up with my colleagues our officemyimage4.




Paul (PhD student – Irish), Ajay (Masters student – Indian), Reza (Iranian – postdoc), me, Monika (PhD student- Polish), Marta, Jason (Postdoc – Australian).  The office is never boring! 




1pm – 2pm: finish sowing the seeds. 2 pm – 3pm. reading.  3pm-430: meeting with my colleagues who work on the same project to review recent advances in our understanding of how plants make lignin.430pm-5pm: cake with all of colleagues who work in the same lab – there are 17 of us altogether. 5pm – 6:30pm – still reading and preparing presentation. Then home for a good meal with my husband.

What I'd do with the money

I would contribute the money towards our department’s program of communicating the work that we do

Our department (Plant Sciences) would really like everybody to have a better understanding of our research – specially as a lot of people don’t find plants interesting! We therefore have open days in Dundee where all ages get involved in activities such as extracting DNA from raspberries and other aspects of our work. I would also like to have funds for interested students to come and spend some time in the lab to see that what we do does not involve being a genius, just very very persistent.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

well-meaning but disorganised

Who is your favourite singer or band?

At the moment Genesis

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Gone sailing in the Clyde channel with my husband

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

1) Be closer to my parents and sister in Zimbabwe (where I’m from originally), related to this 2) do research that will progress agriculture and conservation in Zimbabwe – I do really like the UK, but I think there is a greater need for scientists in Zimbabwe! and 3) have my husband work with me.

What did you want to be after you left school?

a vet, a geologist, a vet, didn’t know, became interested in why there is such a diversity of different species (at which point I was accepted to study Ecology in Norwich)

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Nothing too major – normally for being untidy, late, not doing my homework or reading a book during lessons. I improved slightly with age.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I’ve never had a ‘eureka’ moment, but have certainly contributed to our understanding of how plants grow. Some of my most satisfying work has been developing a computer model of a study plant growing. We then used this model to test our understanding of how genes interact to control when plants flower. During my PhD I discovered how about 20 different plant species (related to the garden snapdragon) evolved from their common ancestor. Now, I would really like to crack the lignin problem in plants – using any method!

Tell us a joke.

What was the last thing that went through the fly’s mind when he hit the car windscreen? – His bottom