Alice Berhin – A new chapter in plant anatomy

People thought that there was nothing new to be discovered in plant anatomy. Au contraire, Alice Berhin discovered a kind of protective layer on the root tips of seedlings. This got her the Prix Schläfli award in Biology.

Alice Berhin, Prix Schläfli 2020
Image: Alice Berhin

A molecular biologist at the University of Lausanne until the end of 2019 and now a postdoctoral fellow in Louvain, 31-year-old Alice Berhin, has a vivacious personality. Born and raised in Belgium, she had a penchant for getting to the bottom of things even as a child. As a girl she was fascinated by the plant kingdom. "I loved to work in the garden with my mother," she says and adds, "I especially enjoyed watching in the springtime how tiny seeds can turn into big plants. Simply awesome!"

However, she did not get much out of biology lessons at school. "You had to learn too much by heart," though the hearty laughter that follows suggests that Alice didn't take herself too seriously. She adds "Besides, I did not get the logic behind it." So she decided to study sociology first. Not the right choice: "Too much scholarly literature," she explains. So Alice Berhin opted for biotechnology after all, the perfect mix of different scientific disciplines. She returned to her first love of plants. "I became more and more interested in plant diseases over time. I love to explore how plants interact with their environment. Because unlike people or animals, plants can't move. I find the flexibility to adapt to all kinds of ambient conditions and to withstand stress fascinating."

As with her studies, Alice Berhin went her own way when it came to research. She began her career working for a pharmaceutical company. Although she liked working in antibody research, she realised that she would not get anywhere without a doctorate or years of work experience. So she applied for a doctorate degree at the University of Lausanne. She admits that she originally wanted to return to the industry after getting her doctorate. However, she soon discovered that she found the academic world more attractive than she had expected. Her doctoral thesis dealt with the deposition of fatty acid polymers on the surface of roots. That does not sound particularly spectacular, but Ms Berhin was entering completely new territory: she discovered that such processes actually exist in plant roots and assigned them to a novel cell structure of the root, the root cap cuticle. "It has always been there, but it hadn’t been discovered before we found it," she says and adds "I remember when I first presented the results at an international conference: some faces seemed to be thinking, ‘why didn't we discover this before?’"

Indeed, the general anatomy of plants had already been researched in depth in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As such, the discovery of new anatomical features has become extremely rare. "In this respect, the achievements of Alice Berhin are remarkable as she not only succeeded in describing a novel anatomical feature in plants, but also provided a fairly complete account of the molecular and functional characteristics of this feature," writes Christiane Nawrath, who supervised Alice Berhin's dissertation.

For her discovery, the young researcher was awarded the Prix Schläfli in Biology by the Swiss Academy of Sciences. This recognition greatly surprised her, considering the high level of competition. “The award shows me that I am on the right track with my research. I am proud of it, and it could help me in my future career. It would be great to become a professor one day," says Berhin.

Astrid Tomczak-Plewka

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