Plant molecular, cellular, and developmental biology focuses on the microscopic aspects of plant function. Many of the careers stemming from this concentration are based in research into basic cellular functions and research techniques to effectively assess those functions. There is a high emphasis on chemistry, molecular biophysics , and plant physiology in this concentration. This concentration addresses the root of plant functions that underlie all other studies of plants. For example, this field deals with the inner workings of cellular function which is of great interest to plant breeders looking to increase crop yield by increasing the efficiency of cellular processes. Additional examples of topic in this field include, plant cell differentiation, the functioning of the xylem in trees, and the chemical composition of various proteins and membranes in the cell.
This field is very detail-oriented, with a lot of repetition. Patience is very important, as is the skill of working well with others. If you are dedicated to your work and willing to stay up-to-date on the latest research findings, this is the field for you. If you are aiming for a teaching oriented position, not only do you have to enjoy working with students, sometimes on a one-to-one level, but you must also be a team player willing to work with the ideas of others.
Representative positions include:
- Lab technician at a research university: Be a member of a team working to broaden knowledge of plant functions. The freedom you would have to pursue researching your own ideas would vary based on your employer. You could be researching to simply increase the science community’s general knowledge base or to tackle solutions to specific problems in the field. This is a great starter job for many other positions listed that require more experience.
- Lab technician at the USDA: More problem-driven research than that at research universities. You would be an employee of the government seeking solutions in any part of the country. Examples of the problems you may be tasked to find solutions for include testing soil samples, disease control, the effect of new chemical pesticides/fertilizers within plants.
- Teaching: From high school to graduate level, opportunities to work directly with students in this field are many. At the high school level, research wouldn’t necessarily be a part of your career, while at the upper levels of teaching it would be a requirement. Depending on the type of institution, different distributions of teaching and research are available in a career.
- Work in the biotechnology industry: Develop and expand upon plant-based technology for numerous purposes. There is a very broad range of job descriptions that apply to biotechnology but those careers geared more towards plants would involve the study of chemical compounds in plant cells and the application and use of those chemicals in modern society. This is a small but rapidly growing field with good prospects for future advancement as people continue to focus on plant-based solutions to modern problems. Example fields of study include: plant based biofuels, effect of climate change on plants, ways to combat climate change with plants, and synthetic biotechnology (mimicking plant structures/compounds).
- Pharmaceutical industry: Develop plant-based drugs and related products in an effort to better human health. This could include holistic, indigenous, and conventional approaches to medicine. As humans become more conscious about the things they put in their bodies, plant based solutions to illness will continue to be at the forefront of medicine. This industry could also involve testing various plant species for new compounds with as yet unknown benefits to human health.
For undergraduate Plant Sciences students in this concentration, pursuing a career of scientific research is also a common option. As an undergraduate student, you have to effectively demonstrate your ability to do research in plant physiology to be accepted by a graduate school as your first step to a research career. In order to be successfully qualified for the standard of graduate school, undergraduate students are strongly encouraged to participate in an undergraduate research program, especially those programs that allow students some space to demonstrate their own insights and participate in experiment design and discussion rather than simply executing the experiment. Cornell University provides undergraduate students with research opportunities in various fields including plant physiology, and relevant courses that allow students to become familiar with the skills and techniques needed for research.
For more information on graduate programs in the plant sciences, visit http://sips.cals.cornell.edu/graduate/fields-concentrations.