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Why I Do Science: Sarah Hake

Sarah Hake

My love of plant biology began in a taxonomy class as an undergraduate at Grinnell College, going outdoors, classifying, and collecting. I thought a career collecting flowers in the high Sierra Mountains would be just about right. However, I discovered in graduate school that I was more drawn to experimental approaches of lab work. I visited maize geneticists at the University of Missouri in Columbia and remember Ed Coe and Gerry Neuffer dashing through the cornfield in a blur, pointing out mutants and significant findings. I also went to my first maize genetics conference as a graduate student and remember writing a postcard to my parents telling them I had found my home in science. Raised in a nonreligious family, genetics felt like my bible.

The cornfield is a beautiful laboratory. Each row has a different family, containing siblings that segregate interesting morphological phenotypes. Both in our summer nursery here in Berkeley and a winter field in Mexico, my lab members and I plant the field together and share observations and stocks. We begin walking through the field when the plants are just a couple of leaves big, and then again and again until the critical time of pollination. At this point, the plants are human size and we are fairy queens, taking pollen from one plant to another. Being in the field — basically being in the experiment — is an incubator for our best ideas.

I also experience my love of field science at home, where my husband and son run a vegetable farm. Here the field work takes on a different tone, with decisions about what to plant when and where. Although the seeds are purchased and do not represent genetic families, there are the occasional morphological mutants that I love to ponder as I help harvest.

Sarah Hake is the director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Plant Gene Expression Center in Albany, Calif., and an adjunct professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.