A Sense of Wonder
When she was five years old, Patricia Baldrich González had a teacher who had a hunch that she might need glasses. Her parents took her to get her eyes checked, confirmed her teacher’s suspicion and gave Pat her very first pair. Pat had no idea what she had been missing. When she walked out of her appointment with her brand-new glasses on, she saw for the first time that the trees had leaves. Up until then, she had always seen them as nothing more than a green blur. The wonder and excitement of that moment sparked her lifelong interest in plants. “Since then, the diversity and complexity of the plant world have inspired me,” Pat says. “Plants have a profound beauty and intricacy that can also be appreciated through close study and observation.”
Better Knowledge, Better Health
Today, Pat has been doing plant research for fifteen years. As an undergraduate biology student at the University of Barcelona, she received a fellowship to spend a semester at the University of Toulouse in southern France. There, she researched the role of Calcium related proteins (CML) in plant-pathogen interactions. “It was eye-opening,” Pat says, “and I made the decision that plant research was what I wanted to do in the future.” From there, she went on to earn a master’s degree in molecular biotechnology and a Ph.D. in plant molecular biology.
Most of Pat’s research is focused on studying RNA and its potential to impact medicine and agriculture. Currently, she is collaborating with scientists at Washington University to understand the role of small RNAs in neurodegenerative diseases. The project aims to identify small RNAs as biomarkers of the early stages of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. This knowledge will assist doctors in diagnosing diseases earlier, resulting in a better outcome for the patient.
“There are countless ways that we can make a difference in the lives of those around us, and I choose to do it by understanding how the world works and using this knowledge to improve the human condition in any aspect,” Pat says. “I like to think that I contribute to a brighter future for ourselves and future generations.”
Working Together for a Healthier World
Pat’s main focus is studying extracellular RNA (exRNA) 's role in facilitating communication between cells and shaping the community of microbes, especially bacteria, that live on and inside plants, insects, and humans. These communities of microbes, often called microbiomes, are critical for the health of plants and animals, including humans. Maintaining a healthy microbiome is key to a healthy immune system, but there is currently very little understanding about how to do so.
A better understanding of exRNAs and how they help cells communicate with these microbiomes could be game-changing knowledge. It would enable scientists to manipulate the communication that they facilitate between cells and microbial organisms, resulting in new environmentally friendly pesticides, treatments for microbial imbalance in both plants and animals, and new diagnostic and therapeutic tools for the early detection and treatment of disease.
The project brings together seven laboratories working toward the common goal of greater understanding, better food, and more effective medicine. This spirit of collaboration is part of what Pat loves about her work. “I have worked as a scientist on three different continents and have seen that diverse perspectives brought together create great interdisciplinary and international collaborations,” Pat says. “I believe these are the driving forces that move science forward and will help us solve the top unanswered questions in plant biology.”
The sense of wonder that Pat felt as a five-year-old seeing leaves for the very first time is still with her today. “Coming to work, knowing that I will learn something new, and feeling that excitement every single day is one of the most thrilling experiences,” Pat says. Now, she gets to put her curiosity to use in a setting where it has the power to change the world.
Outside of work, Pat loves spending time with her family. She and her husband have two young sons, Leif and Neil, both named after adventurous explorers and scientists. They love to spend time outdoors with their big dog Marley, walking in the woods or playing at many of the local parks.