Humboldt Fellow Profile
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Marzieh Valifard seeks out the secret life of plants under stress

Marzieh Valifard, a Humboldt Fellow at TU Kaiserslautern, is working with Professor Ekkehard Neuhaus in the Plant Physiology Lab, aiming to understand precisely how plants use sugars to cope with environmental stress.

Von Unispectrum live • Laura Petersen

In particular, they are analyzing where plants store sugar under different stress conditions, and the genetic and molecular mechanisms driving those responses. If they can work out the precise mechanisms for how plants deal with drought or too much light, the findings could inform efforts to grow more robust plants able to withstand changing climates.

“Working with plants is working with earth’s lungs,” Valifard said. “The trees and plants give us oxygen. We should know how to preserve the plants on earth because it’s vital for everybody.”

Valifard’s interest in plants blossomed early as a child in growing up in Iran. Her father, an electrical engineer, loved his garden. She would often join him outside, surrounded by citrus, lemon and palm trees.

Her father was also her biggest supporter, encouraging her to pursue her education. In high school, she scored top marks in biology, chemistry and earth sciences, but she had to prioritize a field of study on her college applications. Even though she was equally fascinated by chemistry, she listed biology first, in part because she knew how happy it would make her father. Her passion for both subjects has set her up well for studying plant physiology and biochemistry.

“When you are speaking about the sugars and their function, you are speaking about their chemical structure,” she said. “When you are thinking about how they can cope with the stress, you should know about plant biochemistry.”

After completing her undergraduate studies at Tehran University, Valifard went on to earn a masters and PhD in plant physiology at Shiraz University in Iran. Shiraz University named her an “exceptional talent” and a paper from her Ph.D. work was evaluated as one of the “Top 25 Hottest Articles” on Science Direct in 2014. These accolades gave her “a little bit of confidence” to pursue academia, she said with a smile.

She sought out post-doctoral fellowships in other countries, and was awarded an Australian Endeavour fellowship at the University of Western Australia (UWA), where she worked on cold and water logging stress on pasture legumes.

“UWA enriched me with lots of experiences, becoming the first stair of my international promotion to achieve another fellowship in Germany,” she said.

When researching positions, she knew not to just consider the oldest, largest or most famous institutes.

“Sometimes universities have a high ranking, but when you look at your department you can see there are not a lot of things that you want,” she said. “When I searched for this department at TUK, I saw they have a lot of nice publications, Ekkehard is an expert in plant physiology, and just from the articles I could tell he has a lot of facilities.”

She was so impressed with the lab that she felt she would be very lucky to get a post doc here. Neuhaus recommended she apply for the prestigious Humboldt Fellowship, which she received starting in February 2019.

Her husband, an accountant, and young daughter have joined her in both Australia and Germany. They find Kaiserslautern to be a friendly, relaxed place to live and work. She is excited for her daughter to be exposed to other cultures and languages as well.

“Nobody can have any problem in Kaiserslautern,” she said. “Everything you want, you can have here.”

Valifard appreciates how comprehensive the Humboldt Fellowship is, providing language training, meetings with the other fellows, as well as exposure to Germany’s history, culture and cities all around the country.

She hopes to return to Iran at some point to give back to the community that helped her achieve her goals. But she is also very keen to continue exploring different cultures and scientific environments around the world.

No matter where she goes, Valifard always strives to appreciate those around her and to teach others, so they too can pursue their dreams.

“All people help us,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it is child, or professor or very famous person, if we can learn appreciate all the people who help us, we can grow better, we can flourish.”

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