A Major Honour

(July 5th, 2016) Unravelling the mysteries of flowering and vernalisation, British plant biologist, Caroline Dean, recently received royal recognition.

Caroline Dean at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England, has been appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Dean received the title for her plant biology work, for which she is recognised internationally, as well as her work in expanding the role of women in science.

Dean received her title as part of the 2016 Birthday Honours, an annual event that is part of the Queen’s official birthday celebrations. Dean was one of 13 women this year to earn the title of Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Dean says she was delighted by the announcement. “It’s a recognition of so many people’s efforts in my lab for such a long time. And plant science doesn’t get terribly many awards like this, so I think it’s great that it was recognised,” she says.

“Plants are fantastic systems for all sorts of fundamental analyses involving genetics. There have been so many things discovered first in plant biology” - including chromosomes, transposable elements, and small RNAs - “but people sort of forget that over the years,” says Dean. “Somehow, in biology, if it’s not in humans, it’s not important.”

Much of Dean’s research has focused on vernalisation, or why plants need cold in order to flower. This process is very important for predicting the success of many agricultural crops. Some of the questions that Dean has explored include why plants need winter, how the plant knows winter has occurred, and how different plants have adapted to different climates.

Dean and her colleagues uncovered a chromatin mechanism that serves as a cellular memory system and is triggered by non-coding RNAs. The mechanism is highly conserved across plants and animals and has implications for understanding human systems. Her current research is focused on how plants sense and register temperature over long periods of time.

Dean says she has worked to expand the role of women in science by encouraging the female members of her lab to stay in research and by being herself a woman on the frontier of an interesting field. “There were so few role models around when I was a graduate student. I think having role models around is really important,” she says. “In that way, hopefully, I’ve helped by showing that you can have a reasonably balanced family life and have a big lab and keep pushing hard in particular research areas.”

Alexandra Taylor

Photo: John Innes Centre

Last Changes: 08.12.2016