Melissa Chen from the Haney and King labs has received a 2022-2023 Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship!

Congratulations to Dr. Melissa Chen on being selected as one of the 23 recipients of the 2022-2023 Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships, awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

Each year, these prestigious Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships are offered to scholars who have a record of research excellence and leadership, have proposed a research program of exceptionally high quality, and have demonstrated commitment from their chosen institution and synergy between the institution’s strategic priorities and their own research goals.

“It feels incredibly validating to know that experts in the field felt my ideas and career were worth pursuing,” shares Chen. “Academia has a lot of ups and downs, and this is certainly an up.”

As a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Cara Haney and Kayla King labs, Chen studies microbe-mediated protection against pathogens in plant rhizospheres. In particular, she is interested in finding links between pathogenic/protective lifestyles and a microbe’s evolutionary history or ecological niche.

Are pathogen-protective pairs more likely to be closely or distantly related to each other?

Can we distinguish and identify pathogens and protectives by their ecological traits (biofilm formation, nutrient use profiles, etc.)?

If so, can we shift environmental conditions to favour beneficial bacteria in microbe-microbe interactions? 

To answer these questions, Chen is designing a high-throughput 96-well Arabidopsis growth system which can be used in parallel with liquid-handling robots in the Bio! Facility to screen thousands of wild microbial isolates, and isolate combinations, for pathogenic or protective effects on plants in vivo.

“There is increasing interest in using beneficial microbes to help protect crops against diseases,” she shares. “I am hoping that my research can help us better understand how protective and pathogenic microbes interact in vivo so that we can more effectively translate our findings from the lab to the field.”

Aside from her research, Chen has also been involved in a lot of organizational roles – including seminar committees and the organizing of symposiums. This past year, she decided to lean her focus more on mentoring and teaching, where she finds great joy in helping students navigate their research ideas, plans, and designs in the Haney lab. Additionally, she was a lecturer for the course “Data Science in Microbiology and Immunology,” where she worked closely with Dr. Evelyn Sun to pioneer the first-ever iteration of MICB475 – an “in-silica” lab course.

When receiving this award, Chen admits to feeling extremely lucky – crediting her success to the incredible amount of support from her supervisors, mentors, and friends who helped her become the researcher she is today.

But looking at the incredible accomplishments Chen has achieved in her time at UBC, it’s obvious that it’s more than just luck and the stars aligning at the right time.

“For me, the Banting represents freedom,” says Chen. “With support from the Banting, I feel like I have this opportunity to really take risks in my research and accomplish something completely out-of-the-box.

I think – and hope – that this fellowship will also provide some freedom of choice with respect to my future career goals. I have been flirting with a lot of different career paths lately, ranging from academic to government to industry, so I am hopeful that being a Banting recipient will help open a few more doors when it is time to move on.”