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Plants and empowerment

Meet Katayoon Dehesh, American Society of Plant Biologists’ president-elect

August 18, 2020
Author: Jules Bernstein
August 18, 2020

Katie Dehesh, ASPB president-elect
Katayoon "Katie" Dehesh, president-elect of the American Society of Plant Biologists (Stan Lim/UCR)

Katayoon "Katie" Dehesh has many distinguished titles: director of UC Riverside’s Institute for Integrative Genome Biology, distinguished professor of molecular biochemistry, member of the German National Academy of Sciences, and now, president-elect of the American Society of Plant Biologists. But her attitude toward life can be summarized in a single word: power. 

“My mantra is power, as my dream is to empower the young, strengthen their belief in the power of determination and positive thinking,” she said. 

That mantra has taken Dehesh far in life. Originally from Iran, she developed an interest in plants that grow on soils with “unimaginably high salt content.” This interest took her to England, where she earned her doctorate in plant biology at Sussex University, and then back to Tehran for an assistant professorship at the National University. 

Soon after accepting the position, Dehesh was banned from traveling and, like all women in Iran with medical or doctoral degrees, required to serve in the military. In 1980, just as the Iran-Iraq war began, she “heard the bells of revolution,” and left the country. 

Dehesh then became the only foreigner and only woman at the time to obtain a tenure-track position at the University of Kiel in Germany, where she studied the biochemistry of plant greening under stress. Her position gave her a unique opportunity to help empower female graduate students at the institute. 

Her next move was to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to learn molecular biology, and then ultimately to UC Davis where her research shifted to general stress responses in plants.

She remained at Davis for 18 years, teaching and becoming chair of the plant biology graduate program, and the chair of Designated Emphasis on Biotechnology program. One memory stands out for her from those years that epitomizes her mantra. 

Many of the classes she taught were large, comprised of as many as 600 students. One day, an undergraduate came to her, asking to postpone an exam due to some difficult personal issues. 

“I told her that the power to solve her problems lay within her, and that she shouldn’t seek it externally,” Dehesh said. 

Years later, a young lady Dehesh didn’t recognize came up to her in the gym and showed her the letter ‘P’ for power tattooed on her thumb. It was that same student, who heeded Dehesh’s advice and eventually got accepted into medical school. 

“You helped make my life, and I’m going to give power to others now,” the student told Dehesh. 

In 2016, Dehesh came to UCR as director of the Institute of Integrative Genome Biology. Her research is now focused on understanding the chemistry shared by plants and animals, with an eye toward using that knowledge to use plants as a platform for drug discovery. 

She is also expanding the core activities of the institute to train undergraduates in analytical techniques that will open up pathways to employment. 

The American Society of Plant Biologists was originally established in 1924 to promote the growth of plant biology as a discipline. Though ‘American’ is in its name, membership spans six continents and such diverse areas as academia, government laboratories, and private industry. 

When Dehesh assumes the role of president on Oct. 20, her goal is to further integrate the plant biologists’ society with society at large, and to enhance opportunities for early career and underrepresented members. 

“I want us to come out of our ivory tower, to engage with the public, explain what we do and how we can impact the next generation of educators, students, faculty members and everyone else,” she said. 

Throughout her three-year tenure as president, she is sure to be guided by her lifelong mantra. “Power is just a word,” Dehesh said. “But it conveys a message we can give to others — and to ourselves.”