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The plant scientist paving the way for future crops

Five years ago, he decided to take on the debate. With roots in the forests of Ångermanland, researcher Stefan Jansson stands strong when the winds blow.

Umeå, spring 1985. A 26-year-old Stefan Jansson strolls as usual by the Physiology Building at Umeå University where his then-wife works. She is a doctoral student and he is finishing his Biology and Chemistry subject teacher education. In about six months, when he will have completed the programme, they are contemplating leaving Umeå. Teaching jobs in the University City are hard to come by, and with two small children, having a short commute to work is important. But on this particular day, their plans for the future change — a sudden turnaround that Stefan Jansson regards as a coincidence.

“I was asked if I also wanted to go into research. Why I happened to be headhunted is unclear, as I was not planning on going down that path. As a fervent activist, I was convinced that it was more important to become a teacher and to influence the next generation than to become a researcher. But of course it sounded alluring to attempt to become the first to sequence a gene from a tree.”

The choice of direction turned out to be the right one. He successfully completed his doctoral studies in Plant Cell and Molecular Biology and remained at the University. After decades of globally unique studies following two parallel paths — the light-harvesting chlorophyll in plants, and how trees sense when the autumn leaves will turn yellow — Stefan Jansson is currently one of Europe’s leading plant scientists. He has been involved in the full mapping of the genomes of several species of trees — poplar, spruce and aspen. The Norway spruce genome, which was presented in 2013, was the largest ever to be sequenced. Despite having achieved great success as a researcher, his humility is still intact.

“There is a distinct advantage with our young university. Most people in my age group are first-generation academics, and started off completely unfamiliar with this world’s hierarchies, mannerisms and chains of command. Hence, we allowed our doors to remain open. In that way, a relaxed and creative environment was cultivated.”

Stefan Jansson was born in 1959 in Sveg, but grew up in Härnösand in the 1970s — a city with a belief in the future and with a growing population at the time. The middle class prospered, and many adolescents were raised to be both ambitious and committed. His spare time was spent in nature — wandering, picking mushrooms, fishing and grilling — like many other young people. The strong interest in nature and the environment came natural to him.

“Being a field biologist was an important part of my identity for a long time. We were a strong and driven group — real left-leaning idealists who wanted to change the world — and we grew up mainly in the forest. Bird watching was really one of the most fun things I knew. That and music.”

He could just as easily have decided to become a jazz pianist, and there was a college in Härnösand with a music programme that he was interested in. We now know that did not happen. On the other hand, Stefan Jansson started a cover band in 1987 called Second Hand Band that still performs today, although some band members have been replaced over the years.

“With music, I can actively disconnect from work when I’ve got too much going on in my head. I’m rather good at focusing on other things. Family history is another way — I can easily get bogged down in court records from the 17:th century to discover things that no one else has found,” he says.

Stefan Jansson is the personification of curiosity and he likes discussing things. With his lively gaze, relaxed attitude and verbal prowess — in combination with a consciously casual dress style — he can easily disarm his opponents on several levels. He frequently uses these tools in the debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). His involvement in the issue rapidly accelerated in 2011 when Swedish Science Radio (Vetenskapsradion) asked him to participate in a live debate.

“From that day, it became some kind of a calling, to try to set aside one day a week to dare to take on the debate and see if it made any difference.”

Stefan Jansson is critical of the strict regulations encompassing GMOs due to its questionable scientific basis. He believes that genetic engineering is the future, especially for the lower-income parts of the world.

“Mutations often occur on their own in nature, and are neither dangerous to people nor the environment. With modern genetic engineering, we can effectively cultivate both resistant and healthy crops.”

The main argument of the environmental movement — that GMOs are risky because they can spread through nature — is nonsense, according to Jansson. The scientific community and the environmental movement is in conflict here, which is rather ironic when taking Stefan Jansson’s background into account.

“But many of them know that I’m right, and the environmental movement will eventually have to change its mind on the issue.”

As a debater in such a sensitive subject, it is extremely important to be accurate and to avoid being accused of acting as a puppet of the industry. Stefan Jansson recognises that he has a strategically valuable position.

“I am involved with basic research, not with products, and I do not have any patents. But if I were to produce something new and of commercial interest in the years to come, a company would certainly take care of the invention,” he says.

His commitment also has political consequences. In late 2015, he helped convince the Swedish Board of Agriculture to confirm that some genetically modified Arabidopsis plants that have been produced using the new CRISPR/Cas-9 gene editing technology, are not to be classified as GMOs and thus can be planted in the field. He now hopes that the interpretation can lead to a change in EU legislation in this area.

According to Stefan Jansson, all researchers should sharpen their communication skills. More should also be rewarded for being engaged in the so-called ‘third task’ or public outreach, possibly through the University instituting more distinctions and awards. He has received several awards himself for his contributions as an author, debater and lecturer.

“Good researchers do not need to be good communicators, but there’s a correlation. And of course, it’s easier to get a well-written application or article accepted. For example, I’m not sure I’m the best here at ‘conducting research’, but I’m good at writing and explaining — reaching out.”

He also believes that it is easier for someone who has been installed as professor to devote oneself to popular science, especially if the professor is a man.

“Many are worried that their scientific credibility can be undermined, most of all internally. To be portrayed in the media can be seen as taking a shortcut in one’s career. For women, it is probably extra tough — it’s unfortunately always easier to diminish women, no matter what it’s about.”

Nevertheless, he has also been aware of the balancing act to avoid the risk of losing respect.

“The fear is ending up as one of those professors that just babble on, without having done anything research-related in years. For a long time, I made sure that my list of popular science publications didn’t exceed that of my scientific articles — but as of late, I have actually let go of that idea.”

Today, Stefan Jansson has been remarried for many years — and his five adult children have moved out of home. He lives alternately in an apartment in Umeå and in a house in a village just about 50 kilometres from the city. At the house in the countryside, he grows flowers and vegetables and builds stairs, flower beds and herb gardens. His thoughts often turn to how he will prioritise his time until retirement, especially since he has been Head of the Department of Plant Physiology since the turn of the year. Within his research, there are a few things he would like to finish.

“I really want to try to understand the timetable of broadleaf hardwood trees in the autumn, and how conifers can retain their chlorophyll over the winter. It’s actually an insane project that takes an incredibly long time, but that’s why there isn’t any competition. If I succeed I’d be overjoyed!”

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