A plant physiologist studies a large variety of plant processes, such as how chemicals are transported throughout the plant, how plants capture the energy from the sun, and how plants defend themselves from attack by microbes or insects. Plant physiologists also study the process of plant growth and development: how plant cells perceive their place and role within the plant, how factors such as light and gravity affect what plant cells will do, and how plant hormones signal to cells about environmental conditions. Thus, plant physiologists may study the mechanisms by which plants produce compounds of medicinal value or the effect of increased carbon dioxide concentrations or drought stress on plant growth. Such research can lead to identification of medicines, may serve to determine how plants respond to the proposed greenhouse effect, and may be used to create plants resistant to drought stress. Overall the study of plant physiology can benefit humanity by providing an increase in crop yields for farmers or the identification of more effective medicines. A plant physiologist is responsible for designing, implementing, and interpreting experiments related to plant biology. Plant physiologists also serve as teachers of plant biology to students of all ages and may help inform politicians of the role of science in our daily lives.
In order to pursue a career in plant physiology an individual should obtain a bachelor's degree in plant biology or a bachelor's degree in biology with an emphasis in plants. Further specialized study, such as obtaining a master's or doctorate in plant biology, are helpful in securing employment and ensuring career advancement. Laboratory training in the methods and rationale of plant physiology is essential.
Universities, industry, botanical gardens, government agencies, and conservation organizations employ plant physiologists. The work performed by plant physiologists can be pursued in a wide variety of environments. Some physiologists pursue research purely in the laboratory. They may cultivate their plant of interest in a greenhouse or growth chamber and use these plants to study a process of interest by performing experiments within the laboratory. Other plant physiologists study plants in their native environment and spend a great deal of time outdoors. Depending on what plant process is being studied these scientists may travel the globe, studying medicinal plants in the tropical rain forest or carbon fixation in the arctic tundra.
The career of a plant physiologist is exciting because it is forever changing. Each day experiments are performed that provide new insight into how plants function and allow for discoveries of the unknown. The work may give a person the satisfaction of having contributed to a knowledge base that will forever serve to improve the quality of life on this planet.
see also Physiology.
Sabine J. Rundle
Physiologists study the functions and activities of organisms—the way plants and animals are designed as well as how they interact with their environment. This includes functions and activities at the cellular and molecular level, both under normal and abnormal conditions. Physiologists may choose to specialize in any of the life processes, including growth, reproduction, aging, and metabolism, or the circulatory, nervous, or immune systems.
Notable physiologists include scientists such as American Dr. Matilda Brooks, who developed antidotes for cyanide and carbon monoxide poisoning. The Scottish physiologist Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842) described the central nervous system in human beings. A British physiologist, Edgar Adrian, shared a Nobel prize in 1932 for his work in determining the electrical nature of nerves and muscles, and later went on to codevelop the electroencephalograph which measures brain activity.
All physiologists require a background in physics and computer science with an emphasis on biological sciences such as microbiology, ecology , evolution, genetics , and behavioral biology. Physiologists work in either applied or basic research. Physiologists with a masters degree generally do applied research at companies interested in developing specific solutions to health problems or restoring the environment. They should be familiar with high-tech laboratory equipment such as electron microscopes, thermal cyclers, and nuclear magnetic resonance machines. They must also be able to communicate well with nonscientists.
Physiologists who pursue a Ph.D. spend additional time in laboratory research and in writing a dissertation. Frequently they go on for several years of post-doctorate work in their area of interest. Physiologists who specialize in basic research tend to work at universities, where they are funded by scientific grant money. Usually their work consists of doing original research, overseeing graduate students, and teaching. Unlike applied researchers, basic researchers are free to pursue knowledge for its own sake without the constraints of producing a practical product. This can lead to exciting discoveries, as they follow their curiosity into the mysteries of the world within and without.
Occupational Outlook Handbook. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Labor/Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2000.