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Why I Do Science: Sabeeha Merchant

Sabeeha Merchant and members of her lab standing next to a bioreactor.

Sabeeha Merchant (left) and members of her lab with a bioreactor, which they use to culture algal cells.

Photo by Lindsey Pfeiffer

Everyone can benefit from the scientific method. The importance of thinking critically and evaluating data has become especially evident during the pandemic as each of us evaluates risks and faces questions around masking, vaccination, and travel.

My own introduction to science—and my path to a scientific career—began when I was twelve, and I had to choose a science or arts focus in school. I had an aptitude for both, and my mother chose science for me. She didn’t hold stereotypes of what women should study or whether they should have a career.

I’ve now been studying the biology of trace metals in plants for over 30 years. Small amounts of metals like copper, iron, zinc, and manganese are needed for the health of organisms, from bacteria to plants and animals. I research plants because they only use water, carbon dioxide, light, and a few mineral nutrients, so it’s straightforward to prepare growth conditions where we can control the supply of minerals. I also study Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, an alga in the green plant lineage. Twenty years ago, we started to use genomic approaches for this work; now, my research group is well known in the area of green algal genomics. It’s exciting that there are still so many discoveries to be made—the field is ripe for young scientists.

I’m so thankful for the community of researchers I interact with regularly at conferences and through research collaborations and the review process. Our individual scientific discoveries are each important, but more lasting is the education of students and postdoctoral scholars. Their discoveries are a direct outcome of my efforts, and they will further educate other students. Helping to grow this family of scientists is my proudest achievement.

Sabeeha Merchant is a professor of plant biology and of biochemistry, biophysics, and structural biology, and a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In 2007, she led a team that sequenced the Chlamydomonas genome.