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Q&A with Katayoon Dehesh

In the following Q&A with University of California, Riverside's Katayoon Dehesh, we explore her personal journey from overcoming mandatory military service in Iran to pioneering in the field of plant stress biology, a testament to her resilience and passion.   


Katayoon Dehesh is the Director of the Institute for Integrative Genome Biology (IIGB) and the Ernst and Helen Leibacher Endowed Chair in Botany and Plant Sciences at the University of California, Riverside.

After graduating high school in Iran, Dehesh attended Pahlavi University for a Bachelor's degree in Biology. Her academic path continued at Sussex University in England, where she pursued a Ph.D. in Plant Stress Biology.

Dehesh's initial plan was to return to Iran for a brief six-month period before embarking on a postdoctoral position in the United States. However, fate had other plans. Soon after her arrival in Iran, she found herself in a surprising turn of events - mandated to undergo military service as a woman with a Ph.D., and restricted from leaving the country.

As time passed, she witnessed the shifting political landscape of the country, marked by unrest and eventually, the onset of a revolution. In 1980, she daringly escaped to Germany and embarked on her scientific journey. Her dedication in Klaus Apel's plant biology lab resulted in a significant 1983 publication. This breakthrough not only recognized her as a scientist but also secured a habilitation position.

Dehesh's path was marked by challenges, including finding suitable accommodation in a conservative German city. Seeking to broaden her knowledge, she joined Peter Quail's botany lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1986. Facing constraints in her research, she left the German lab to become a postdoctoral researcher in Quail's lab, driven by a desire to be acknowledged for her scientific contributions.

Her career took her to the University of California, Berkeley, where she authored influential papers. In 1994, she led the lipid biochemistry program at Calgene but resigned in 2002. That year, she founded The Dehesh Lab at UC Davis, focusing on understanding how organisms perceive and respond to developmental and environmental cues through tightly regulated inter- and intra-cellular communication networks. 

What inspired you to pursue a career in research, and how did you get interested in your current field of study? 


During my second year of study, I embarked on a transformative scientific excursion to a Salt Lake called Maharloo, nestled in the picturesque landscapes of southern Iran, in Shiraz. As I gazed upon the stunning vista, I was captivated by an astonishing sight – a lush population of succulent plants thriving in the midst of this saline environment. The sheer resilience and adaptability of these plants, seemingly defying the harsh conditions imposed by the high salt levels, left an indelible impression on me.

In that singular moment, a profound shift occurred within me, igniting an unquenchable curiosity and passion. It was as if I had stumbled upon a profound revelation that crystallized my future path. I realized that I wanted to delve deeper into the realm of plant biology, to understand the intricate mechanisms by which these remarkable succulents not only survived but thrived in such a challenging habitat.

"Maharloo Lake, also known as Pink Lake, Q&A with Katayoon Dehesh, PhD"
Maharloo Lake, also known as Pink Lake is a seasonal salt lake in the highlands of the area of Shiraz, Iran

This newfound aspiration, born from the salt-kissed shores of that remote lake, became my guiding star. It spurred me to pursue a career dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of plant stress biology, to explore the remarkable adaptations that enable plants to flourish in diverse and often unforgiving environments.

The memory of those resilient succulent plants serves as a constant reminder of the boundless potential for discovery within the natural world. It underscores the power of nature to inspire and guide us toward our true callings. From that moment forward, I embarked on a journey that would not only deepen my understanding of the botanical world but also lead to significant contributions in the field of plant biology.

Can you describe the research projects you are currently working on and how they contribute to your field? 


Organisms intricately fine-tune their cellular responses, orchestrated by the interplay between developmental cues and environmental influences, chiefly through metabolic processes and the regulation of enzymes. This fine-tuning is especially critical for maintaining cellular equilibrium, particularly within complex organellar membranes. However, despite the evident significance of this process, the molecular intricacies governing subcellular membrane stability, particularly in response to stress, have remained shrouded in mystery.

Our research is at the forefront of unraveling the intricate consequences resulting from shifts in plastidial metabolism. Specifically, we are dedicated to understanding how stress-induced alterations in plastidial metabolites impact the structural dynamics of biological membranes and subsequently, the complex interplay between lipids and proteins within these membranes, which is vital for maintaining cellular equilibrium.

One of our central areas of focus is the examination of interorganellar communication, delving into how plastidial metabolites play a regulatory role in shaping the structure and function of other organelles, such as the endoplasmic reticulum and mitochondria. These organelles are central players in various cellular processes, and understanding how plastidial metabolites influence them provides valuable insights into the broader mechanisms governing cellular homeostasis.

Our research endeavors are dedicated to bridging these knowledge gaps, shedding light on previously unexplored dimensions of the intricate interplay between metabolites and proteins. We aim to uncover how cells detect and transmit stress signals that trigger the remodeling of cellular membranes, and how this cascade of events influences the efficiency and integrity of other organelles. Furthermore, we seek to elucidate the potential consequences of these processes on plant growth and development, particularly in the face of challenging and stressful environmental conditions.

In essence, our research serves as a beacon illuminating the intricate molecular pathways that underlie cellular responses to stress and environmental cues. By dissecting these mechanisms, we not only expand our understanding of fundamental biological processes but also pave the way for innovative solutions to enhance plant resilience and development in the ever-changing conditions of our world.

How did the U.S. immigration system help or hinder your efforts to establish your career here? 


The U.S. immigration system played a pivotal role in not only facilitating but also enriching my journey to establish a career in the United States. It granted me the invaluable opportunity to pursue my academic and professional aspirations, thus contributing significantly to the development of my successful career.

Academic and Professional Freedom: The U.S. immigration system bestowed upon me the freedom to chart my academic and professional course. Upon my arrival in the United States, I had the privilege of joining esteemed institutions like the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and later, the University of California, Berkeley. These institutions provided the fertile ground where I could engage in cutting-edge research and publish influential papers. The system's flexibility in visa granting and its openness to skilled professionals allowed me to flourish in my chosen field, ultimately leading to my acquisition of American citizenship.

Equal Opportunity: The U.S. immigration system ensured that I faced no discrimination, be it based on gender or my Middle Eastern ethnicity. In stark contrast to certain other nations where my status as a single woman and a foreigner presented daunting hurdles, the United States offered an even playing field to nurture my scientific ambitions. This unwavering commitment to equality empowered me to channel my energies into research and career growth.

Recognition and Acknowledgment: The United States not only embraced my presence but also recognized my talent and contributions. By affording me the opportunity to establish my academic laboratory and embark on groundbreaking research, the U.S. immigration system played a pivotal role in my recognition as a respected scientist. The abundant opportunities within the country enabled me to build a distinguished reputation on the global stage.

Supportive Academic Environment: By ultimately granting me citizenship, the U.S. immigration system smoothed my transition into the academic and research community. It opened doors to vital resources, collaboration prospects, and a nurturing network of peers and mentors. This nurturing environment was instrumental in propelling my career forward and achieving my professional aspirations.

Freedom to Pursue Research: The United States, with its unwavering commitment to academic and research excellence, fueled my pursuit of innovative research endeavors. This liberty to explore new frontiers in science, as exemplified by my transition into the study of stress-response pathways in plants, empowered me to make substantial contributions to my field, thus advancing the frontiers of scientific knowledge.

In summary, the U.S. immigration system assumed a pivotal role in my life's journey, offering me a hospitable home, academic and professional acclaim, and the opportunity to carve out a triumphant career. It epitomizes the spirit of a nation that cherishes talent, celebrates diversity, and recognizes individual contributions, thereby solidifying its place as the land that not only gave me a home and a profession but also bestowed upon me the recognition I hold dear.

What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishments so far in your research career? 


One of the most gratifying achievements in my research career has been the opportunity to work alongside the bright and dynamic minds of students and postdoctoral fellows. Witnessing their growth and success as they take significant strides in their professional journeys has been immensely fulfilling. It is the blend of classroom teaching and hands-on research experiences within the laboratory that ignites their passion for inquiry and inspires them to delve deeper into the world of research.

In my role, I've found that the synergy between traditional classroom teaching and the practical application of research concepts within a lab setting has a profound impact on these aspiring scientists. It not only imparts theoretical knowledge but also instills a sense of curiosity and excitement about the possibilities that lie ahead in the realm of research.

Within the actual research laboratory, one of my most significant discoveries has been the identification of evolutionarily conserved pathways spanning from bacteria to plants. This breakthrough has illuminated the interconnectedness of life forms and the remarkable shared mechanisms that underlie their existence. Moreover, it has opened up exciting prospects for leveraging this knowledge in the realm of drug discovery, using plants as a versatile platform. The revelation of these conserved pathways has profound implications. It underscores the importance of cross-species research, highlighting that solutions to complex problems can often be found by examining the shared evolutionary heritage of living organisms. It also offers a promising avenue for harnessing the power of plants as a platform for drug discovery, potentially leading to groundbreaking advancements in medical science.

In essence, my greatest achievement is twofold: nurturing the growth of young talents in the field of research through teaching and mentorship and uncovering the profound evolutionary connections that can pave the way for innovative solutions in the scientific community. Both endeavors exemplify the transformative potential of scientific inquiry and collaboration, leaving an indelible mark on the world of research and its future possibilities.

Can you talk about any collaborative projects you have worked on with colleagues from other countries? 

Throughout my career, I've had the privilege of working in numerous countries and engaging with scientists from various continents. This global perspective has underscored the idea that science knows no borders; it is a universal profession that thrives on the exchange of knowledge and ideas.

In the world of science, the boundaries that might divide nations or cultures seem to fade away. Science transcends geographic limitations, offering an open invitation to anyone willing to explore its mysteries. It's akin to a door that swings wide open with a simple knock, welcoming curious minds from around the world.

This interconnectedness is not just a testament to the power of scientific inquiry but also a reminder of the immense potential that arises when we collaborate across borders. Through these interactions, we gain new insights, challenge our preconceptions, and collectively push the boundaries of what is possible.

In essence, the global nature of science enriches our understanding of the world and reminds us that curiosity knows no bounds. It is a testament to the fact that, in the pursuit of knowledge, we are all part of a borderless community, united by our shared quest for discovery and understanding.

What advice would you give to other immigrants who are pursuing careers in research or academia in the United States? 

Drawing from my own journey, I offer the following advice to fellow immigrants who aspire to establish successful careers in the United States:

  • Embrace Opportunities: Embrace the abundant opportunities available in the United States. Actively seek out educational and professional prospects that align with your goals.
  • Persistence Pays Off: Understand that persistence and determination are key. My story illustrates that unwavering dedication to your goals can lead to remarkable achievements.
  • Leverage the Educational System: Take advantage of the U.S. educational system. Explore universities and institutions that can help you build your knowledge and skills while fostering a diverse and inclusive environment.
  • Equality and Inclusivity: Remember that the United States values diversity and offers a level playing field for those willing to work hard and excel, irrespective of their background.
  • Seek Mentorship: Seek mentorship and build a professional network. Mentors and supportive peers can play a crucial role in your career development.
  • Adaptability: Be open to change and new opportunities. My journey illustrates how adaptability can lead to unexpected and rewarding career paths.
  • Contribute to Society: Pursue personal success and give back to your communities and society as a whole. Your contributions can have a positive impact.
  • Value Education: Place importance on continuous learning and professional development. Stay updated with industry trends and innovations to remain competitive.
  • Navigate Challenges: Challenges may arise, but resilience is essential. My story demonstrates that setbacks can lead to new and unexpected opportunities.
  • Celebrate Successes: Celebrate your successes, regardless of their size. Hard work and dedication yield rewards.
  • Pay It Forward: Support and mentor others on a similar journey. Sharing your experiences and knowledge can help fellow immigrants navigate their path to success.
  • Believe in Yourself: Above all, believe in your abilities. My journey is proof of the transformative power of self-belief and determination.

Our collective experiences can serve as a wellspring of inspiration and guidance for immigrants striving to achieve their dreams in the United States. By sharing our wisdom, we can help pave the way for their success and continue to enrich the diversity and vitality of our nation.

What do you see as the future of research in your field, and how do you plan to contribute to its progress and advancement? 


I envision my future research path as a journey into the intricate web of overlapping stress response networks that stretch across a diverse spectrum of life forms, from bacteria to complex organisms like malaria parasites, all of which share essential metabolic pathways such as the MEP-pathway. This line of inquiry holds the promise of shedding light on previously uncharted territories and unlocking a wealth of insights with far-reaching implications.

At its core, this research is about deciphering the common threads that connect these seemingly disparate life forms at the molecular level. It's about uncovering the hidden intricacies of shared metabolic pathways, like the MEP-pathway, which serve as the bedrock for survival and adaptation in the face of environmental stressors.

One of the exciting dimensions of this research is its potential for practical applications. By understanding how these pathways are conserved across different organisms, we can glean invaluable insights into novel mechanisms for biofilm control and the development of antibacterial agents. Biofilms, complex communities of microorganisms that can form on various surfaces, are notorious for their resilience and resistance to traditional antibiotics. Our research has the potential to offer innovative solutions for combating biofilm formation and enhancing our arsenal against bacterial infections.

As we delve deeper into this research, we are not only expanding the frontiers of scientific knowledge but also contributing to the development of practical tools and strategies with real-world applications. The journey ahead promises to be both intellectually rewarding and impactful, as we work towards a better understanding of the intricate web of life's responses to stress and pave the way for innovative solutions in the field of microbiology and beyond.

Any final words? 

In the tapestry of life, the threads of determination, resilience, and adaptability are woven into the fabric of success. As immigrants, we embark on journeys filled with challenges and opportunities. Remember, each hurdle you overcome is a steppingstone toward your dreams. Embrace the diversity of your experiences, for it is the mosaic of stories that makes this nation vibrant and strong. Believe in yourself, lift others as you climb, and let the pursuit of excellence be your guiding star. In the United States, the land of boundless possibilities, your journey is a testament to the enduring spirit of hope, perseverance, and achievement.