Botany One interviews Dr Idowu Obisesan for Fascination for Plants Day to lean more about her interest in plant physiology, sustainability and societal challenges.

With Fascination of Plants Day approaching, Botany One has prepared a series of interviews with researchers from around the world working in different areas of botany to share the stories and inspiration behind their careers.

To close our series, we have Dr Idowu Obisesan, a Professor at Bowen University (Nigeria). Obisesan is a plant physiologist focused on legumes’ responses to abiotic and biotic factors and on finding and promoting sustainable agricultural practices for the production of these vital crops. Moreover, she is also interested in medicinal plant research and has her own YouTube channel called “The Plant Therapist“, which features content on science-proven plant medicine. You can follow more of her work on X as @IdowuAobisesan.

Obisesan measuring seedling photosynthesis at the greenhouse. Photo by Idowu Obisesan.

What made you become interested in plants?

My interest in plants began as a kid when I saw people around me in Africa using plants for medicinal purposes. I previously believed plants were mainly for food and others, such as weeds, were ‘unwanted’ plants, as I was taught in elementary school. Still, my curiosity increased when I realized some of those ‘unwanted plants’ have other environmental uses and impacts. The trees help reduce the effects of climate change, and some of the weeds have medicinal and ecological values. These raised my curiosity about plant science research. 

What motivated you to pursue your current area of research?

My motivation to pursue plant physiology was kindled while I was on a school trip as an Undergraduate student to a plant tissue culture laboratory at a research institute in Nigeria. Honestly, I was thrilled to see such facilities and the precision at which the plants were cultured. I was fascinated by the possibility of culturing and regenerating a tiny portion of a plant and making multiple plants from it in a controlled environment. So, while I was back home and heard farmers complain about poor harvests due to pests or droughts, I saw myself mass-propagating crops through tissue culture later in life!

Plant grown by micropropagation, a plant tissue culture technique. Photo by Angphotorion, Wikicommons

What is your favourite part of your work related to plants?

There are two things I like the most about my work. The first one is observing how plants cope with stress. Some ways I have seen plants respond to stress are by adapting, releasing some reactive oxygen species, avoiding stress, or changing their architectural structures, among many other ways. I have taken a cue from this to deal with life challenges and opportunities. This nature of plants has taught me about resilience. The second one is when I teach Undergrad students an introduction to algae at the University. Year in and out, the students have been mostly thrilled about the photosynthetic nature of algae, and this lecture also serves as a redirect from what some of them have been taught in high school, that algae are mainly a water pollutant.

Are any specific plants or species that have intrigued or inspired your research? If so, what are they and why?

Malnutrition is a major problem in some parts of Africa, and animal proteins are quite expensive for many households to afford. So, I got interested in an alternative and affordable protein source: leguminous plants. Legume crops, like a few other plants in my country, are still faced with sustainable cultivation and production challenges such as drought and pests. This informed my interest in legume crop sustainability research. I have worked on the effects of drought on soybeans, Mexican yam beans, African yam beans, pigeon peas, Bambara nuts, just to name a few . I have also studied some common fungi infesting legume crops in Nigeria. Additionally, I do research on the medicinal potency of legume plants. 

Bambara nuts (Vigna subterranean), one of the legumes that Obisesan work on her research. Photo by Ton Rulkens, Wikicommons.

What advice would you give young scientists considering a career in plant biology?

My advice for young scientists considering a career in plant biology is to find and reach out to one or two mentors early enough in this journey. Still, it’s never too late to find a mentor, either. Having a mentor who has passed through the same route as the one you are about to take makes the journey easier for you. Don’t wait to be hand-picked by a mentor; rather, reach out to as many as you can. Learn from their wins, mistakes, and missed opportunities, then use this as a cue to structure your career journey, keeping in mind that others will reach out to you later in life for you to also share your experience and journey with them.

What do people usually get wrong about plants?

People mostly believe plants are only for food and medicine. So, where I come from, people believe that as a plant biologist, you are only working on the medicinal uses of plants. Most do not think of plants as living organisms and that plants can reveal so much about our environment to us.

Carlos A. Ordóñez-Parra

Carlos (he/him) is a Colombian seed ecologist currently doing his PhD at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (Belo Horizonte, Brazil) and working as a Science Editor at Botany One and a Social Media Editor at Seed Science Research. You can follow him on X and BlueSky at @caordonezparra.

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