Between Petri dishes, computers, and fieldwork
Created by Viola Brand
"I actually never wanted to do anything with plants," admits Martina Kolb with a laugh. She is looking at a small piece of soil demarcated with a cord, where dozens of tiny green stems are sprouting from the dirt. With her phone, she is taking photos to document the little plants. Just as she is about to press the camera button, the phone rings: a scientist calls to tell Martina that the centrifuge in the lab has broken down.
Scenes like these are typical in Martina’s everyday life as a biology laboratory technician. Since fall 2021, she has been managing the lab of Detlef Weigel's Department of Molecular Biology. "In the morning, I first check my e-mails, and then usually a researcher already knocks on the door asking me for support," Martina describes her average workday. She adds: "As the lab manager, I am a contact person for all kind of work and all problems that arise in the lab – for example, if an instrument fails, or if an experiment doesn't work out."
In addition, Martina coordinates the team of technical assistants and janitors, organizes parties, and handles the occupancy of the greenhouse. Martina reports: "If I schedule half the day with fixed activities, the rest of the day automatically fills up with unpredicted work. As a result, no day is like the other, and that’s very exciting for me." Of course, Martina also attends lab meetings, which allows her to support the research teams with her 15 years of lab experience and extensive knowledge of analytical methods.
Martina Kolb has been a part of the Max Planck Institute of Biology in Tübingen since 2009. Until 2021, she worked for the meanwhile retired Scientific Director Gerd Jürgens, who was investigating the developmental biology of plants.
Before that, she never would have guessed she would do anything related to plants: she had always disliked that during her training, working with plants implied that she had to draw structures visualized by the microscope. "But the way I work with plants at the Max Planck Institute is fascinating, and I really enjoy coming here every day," Martina explains her change of mind. The crowning achievement of her time in Jürgens' team was a study of a novel sensor that can visualize the distribution of a growth regulator in cells. Most of the practical laboratory work on this was carried out by Martina, so naturally she was extremely proud that the study was published in the renowned journal Nature.
In addition to her coordinating activities in Weigel's department, Martina is currently involved in a multi-year project to study the genetic makeup and microbiome of plants occurring in nature. In the process, she and an international team are collecting countless specimens of a small green plant called Arabidopsis thaliana at 60 locations in Germany, France, and the USA. Arabidopsis thaliana is a weed that grows worldwide and serves as a model organism for various scientific questions. "I really like this fieldwork because it's something tangible – you get out of the lab and work in beautiful landscapes. In France, for example, we spent a few days collecting the plants with a view at the Pyrenees," recounts Martina happily.
Martina and her colleagues have to conduct the fieldwork very carefully and accurately. Each year, they need to find again the same 0,25 m2 of soil on which they collected and classified the plants the year before. To do so, they need to measure the exact distance to fixed points such as posts or guard rails. Martina documents the plants for the project, washes them with different solutions, and flash-freezes the samples, so that they can be analyzed in the laboratory a few months later.
It is not surprising that in her free time, Martina is just as outdoorsy and active as in her job. She likes running and swimming, and needless to say that she cycles to the institute every morning. "When I go for a walk, I can't go anywhere without keeping my eyes open for Arabidopsis thaliana. That's like a little treasure hunt for me," Martina explains with a smile her love for the plant that is merely a weed to most people.
For the future, Martina hopes that after the corona pandemic, there will be more social interaction between the different groups at the institute. "For me, the institute is like a big family," she says. "I've made many friends, and it's fantastic to witness the scientists' progress in their projects."