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New faculty profile: Jacob Brunkard focuses on plant molecular genetics

Jacob Brunkard joined the UW–Madison faculty in August 2020 as an assistant professor in the Department of Genetics.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up? I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, in a small town in the Pocono Mountains called East Stroudsburg.

What is your educational/professional background, including your previous position?
I went to Swarthmore College for my undergraduate degree, where I majored in history and in biology.  I wrote two honors theses: one on U.S.-Argentine relations during the 1970s, the other on the physiological ecology of neotropical tree seedlings based on fieldwork in the jungles of Panamá. After graduating, I spent some time working in a plant molecular biology lab at Yale and then with an activist environmentalist organization in Pennsylvania investigating the impact of invasive plants on local ecosystems. I discovered that I loved working on plant molecular biology, so I went to UC Berkeley to pursue my Ph.D. in plant biology studying cell-cell communication in Pat Zambryski’s lab. From there, I spent a brief time as a post-doc at USDA’s Plant Gene Expression Center in Sarah Hake’s lab, studying maize development, before starting my own lab with the support of an NIH Early Independence Award at UC Berkeley in 2017.

How did you get into your field of research?
I’ve always been attracted to plant biology, largely because my parents are avid gardeners and I grew up in a part of rural Pennsylvania that is famous for its diverse ecosystems (pine barrens, cranberry bogs, hemlock groves, new and ancient boreal forests, agricultural farms, etc.). Then, in college, I found that I love the creativity and firm logical underpinnings of experimental biology. Plant molecular genetics is the perfect union of these two passions.

What are the main goals of your current research program?
My lab studies how plants sense and respond to nutrients, or, to put it another way, how plants coordinate metabolism. Many of the genes that regulate plant metabolism are broadly conserved; for example, we focus on a regulatory gene called TOR that has not evolved much in the last billion years, and is therefore extremely similar in both humans and plants. We’re learning a lot about how this core regulatory gene has gained new functions in plants, and we’re also making some surprising discoveries about previously underappreciated pathways in humans that turn out to be conserved in plants and animals.

What attracted you to UW-Madison?
The breadth and depth of science at UW–Madison immediately drew me in. Since my research crosses a number of disciplinary boundaries, the opportunities to collaborate with all kinds of scientists concentrated in a single location was really appealing. I also immediately loved the vibe of the town, and I had great interactions right from the start with students on campus.

What was your first visit to campus like?
It was so cold and snowy! Coming from 10 years living in Berkeley, CA, I had to buy a whole new wardrobe just for the visit to Madison. It’s a testament to the warm welcome from the faculty and students here at Madison that I decided to come here. You can imagine how glad I was to arrive this summer and see all the beautiful green trees and sunshine on the lakes!

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
I’ll never forget a lecture in my first semester at Swarthmore by one of my undergrad professors, Liz Vallen, who walked us through the elegant Meselson-Stahl experiment, an experiment carefully designed to discover how DNA replicates (the answer: “semiconservatively”!). Through that lesson, I learned a lot about how to design an experiment, which includes knowing in advance which questions you can answer with the experiment—and recognizing the enormous range of questions you won’t be able to answer.  Later, in a seminar in graduate school, biochemist Bob Buchanan walked us through the series of experiments conducted by Andrew Benson in Melvin Calvin’s lab that mapped the intermediate steps of photosynthesis (a process now aptly called the “Calvin-Benson cycle”). In that discussion, Bob emphasized that the experiments were only made possible because Benson was able to use leftover radioactive carbon isotopes from the Manhattan Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. This strange contingency—an experiment on photosynthesis enabled by tools that were only available because of the terrible invention of nuclear weapons a few blocks away—highlighted in stark relief that science doesn’t proceed in an isolated vacuum, but is always grounded in larger social contexts.

I hope that students in my classes come to appreciate the importance, therefore, of experimental design, and of the power, limits, and contingencies of the scientific method.

Bruncard works on plants in the Leucospermum genus (as well as other types of plants) in his research lab.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
I’m slow with social media, but I’m learning to appreciate its uses. I do have a Twitter account, @BrunkardL, that we are starting to use, and I’ve been thinking we need an Instagram account to show off our beautiful plants and microscopy.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
As a plant geneticist, I am always mindful of the potential uses of my lab’s discoveries to support or transform agriculture.  Everyone agrees that our current agricultural system is unsustainable in the near-term, but I fear we often try to solve these problems through incremental changes that likely won’t be sufficient. Now as ever, therefore, I am driven by the Wisconsin Idea that our responsibility as academics stretches beyond the university, and that public intellectuals have a duty not only to provide technical advice or train students for specialized vocations, but also to take a step back from the immediate challenges facing us so that we can provide historical and forward-looking perspectives, shape larger conversations about, for instance, the future of agriculture, and pose new questions about how to best move forward as a society.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
When we think about nutrition and metabolism, humans have this long list of nutrients we need to consume—carbohydrates, different kinds of amino acids, various vitamins, etc. I think we all learn at an early age that plants photosynthesize their own sugars, but it’s important to note that plants make all of these other nutrients, too—unlike humans, plants can make every amino acid they need, synthesize their own vitamins, and so on, all from the most basic building blocks (like carbon dioxide in the air and water in the ground). My lab is focused on trying to understand how plants regulate metabolism and balance making all of these different “nutrients” in similar or different ways from humans, given their incredible self-reliance.

What are your hobbies and other interests?
Since I was very young, I’ve played piano and the viola. Music keeps me grounded, and the discipline of practicing keeps me focused and clears my mind in a way that I imagine is similar to how some people feel while meditating. I’ll also watch just about any movie—French New Wave, low-budget horror flick, cheesy superhero blockbuster, I like ‘em all!  When I started at UW–Madison, my partner got me a huge TV as a congratulatory gift so that we can mimic the theater experience at home for the duration of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and host movie parties when it’s safe to do so again.