Marie-Curie scholar from Iran: Plants have hormones, too
As a little girl growing up in Iran, she wanted to grow ornamental plants and flowers. Today, her research is connected to plants but in a different manner. Vahideh Ilbeigi is a new addition to the Department of Experimental Physics where she will develop a method on how to measure plant hormones quickly and reliably. This will help in early identification of plant diseases and has incredible significance for the agricultural industry.
By: Redakcia Našej univerzity
Where do you come from?
I was born in Mashhad, a large city in northeast Iran with a population of about 3 million. Mashhad is the capital of Khorasan province and it is a well-known religious city because of its Holy Shrine Imam Reza (Editor’s note: It is the largest mosque in the world with an area of 267,079 square metres). I spent my childhood, school, high school, and bachelor years in this province.
What was your childhood like?
I had a great childhood and was physically active. I spent most of my free time with my sisters and brother. In the summers, we went to our farm and I planted flowers and followed butterflies. In school I was also a good student and highly motivated. Like other siblings, I was good at mathematics and science. My older sister is a nurse, my younger sister is an electrical engineer, and my brother is a civil engineer.
What did you dream of becoming as a child?
When I was a child, I wanted to grow and sell ornamental plants and flowers. My dream was to have my own flower farm. When I was older, I grew more interested in chemistry. Finally, I decided to study it.
Where did you study chemistry?
In 2006, I went to Isfahan for a master’s degree in physical chemistry at Isfahan University of Technology. I stayed in Isfahan for about 13 years. After my Master’s, I started my PhD, and after my PhD, I took a job in a private company in this city. Isfahan is a historical city in central Iran with many old buildings and bridges built based on Persian architecture. I met my husband for the first time in 2013 in the Physical Chemistry Laboratory, where we worked on our PhD theses and got married in 2018.
What did your path to becoming a scientist look like?
During my Master’s, I worked on the analysis and determination of some explosives by ion mobility spectrometry (IMS) and I successfully developed a direct method for diagnosing these compounds structurally. This was my first scientific experience which was very exciting for me. I felt even more pleased after the publication of my first paper for this work. This was why I was interested in science and performing scientific projects. My first work was published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials – one of the highest ranked journals in chemistry. This work with more than 170 citations is one of my best papers.
What do you like about science?
Science offers you something new every day, it is never boring. For those who don’t like a routine life, science and research are the best choice, as a scientist encounters new challenges every day.
What is it like to be a woman scientist in Iran? Is it very common?
In Iran, nearly 70% of university graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are women. Men prefer to look for a job and moreover, they are required to attend mandatory military service for 2 years. However, in research institutes and at universities, there are more men scientists working than women. Generally, it is difficult to find a job (related to expertise) for both men and women. It is part of our social culture that the family presses the children to study at college after high school. Therefore, there are too many graduates in our country looking for work.
You have joined our university for two years as you received a scholarship for your research. What will you be working on here?
I am happy that now I work as a researcher at the Department of Experimental Physics at Comenius University. I want to work hard on my project on plant hormones and develop applications of ion mobility spectrometry in this field. After my postdoc on the plant hormone molecules, I would like to continue my research on detection and measurements of other molecules extracted and released from plants and flowers. I especially like to study plants with medical uses to identify the molecules that cause medical effects. Also, in the future I would like to work in a company that focuses on constructing analytical instruments, such as ion mobility and mass spectrometry. Mass spectrometry is a technique similar to IMS that is used for identification of compounds based on the mass/charge ratio of the ions produced from the compound.
What kind of hormones do plants have? Are they any similar to human hormones?
Plant hormones, similar to human hormones, are naturally produced within plants and influence the plant growth, seed germination, fruit maturation and fruit ripening, they have significant roles in the production of food crops. They are responsible for controlling the physiological processes including embryogenesis, regulation of the organ size, pathogen defense, and reproductive developments.
How are the plant hormones measured today?
Since plant hormones are produced in a very low concentration, their detection is an important issue in plant physiology studies. In recent years, high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), gas chromatography (GC), and mass spectrometry (MS) techniques are reported for measuring plant hormones. Chromatography is a technique used to separate mixtures of substances into their components based on their molecular structure and molecular composition. This involves a stationary phase (a solid, or a liquid supported on a solid) and a mobile phase (a liquid or a gas). The mobile phase flows through the stationary phase and carries the components of the mixture with it. Sample components that display stronger interactions with the stationary phase will move more slowly through the column than components with weaker interactions. Hence, chromatography is a slow and expensive technique.
What is your solution?
We aim to introduce a fast and low-cost technique. In this project, the proposal includes the use of ion mobility spectrometry for the detection and quantification of plant hormones. IMS is an instrumental analytical method that works at atmospheric pressure. A sample is heated to vaporize and enters an ionization region. Ions are then periodically injected into a drift tube by applying successive pulses to the shutter grid. An electric field is applied all over the tube to move the ions. Ionized molecules then travel through the drift tube at speeds that are related to their mass and size. Different ions are separated in the drift tube, according to their size, mass and geometry while traveling towards the detector. Each substance produces specific ions that yield a unique spectrum. IMS instruments can be used in a range of applications including volatile organic compound (VOC) monitoring, biological sample analysis, medical diagnosis, and food quality monitoring. Analysis and response times of IMS are very short, thus providing the basis for a real-time monitoring capability. The IMS instrument used in this project has been made and developed at the Department of Experimental Physics at Comenius University.
How long have you worked on this particular research?
I have about 12 years’ experience working with IMS. However, the plant hormone field is new, and I have just started their measurements at Comenius University. Although I am familiar with some aspects of real sample analysis including extraction and pre-concentration, it is the first time that I want to work with plant tissues.
Do you have tutors or co-workers in your field that you want to mention?
Prof. Štefan Matejčík supported and helped me during all the steps of the Marie-Curie scholarship and I truly appreciate him and his group at the Department of Experimental Physics for the scientific and administrative advice.
Can you tell us more about this scholarship and how you got it?
The Marie-Curie scholarship supports the mobility of experienced researchers (in possession of a doctoral degree or with at least four years of research experience) through European Fellowships for 2 years. Since I’ve previously had some scientific collaborations with Prof. Matejčík’s group and I was familiar with the facilities of his laboratories, we decided that I should apply for the Marie-Curie scholarship.
What are your plans after this visit here at Comenius University?
I will obtain valuable knowledge and experience during my postdoc at Comenius University. Therefore, I hope to find a good position in a research institute or a university in a European country after my postdoc. Otherwise, I will go back to Iran to continue my work on developing applications of ion mobility spectrometry for different classes of compounds. Also, I intend to allocate some of my time on instrumental development of ion mobility spectrometry.