FEATURED FACULTY: Dr. Susanne Kohalmi
Visit Dr. Kohalmi's website
Susanne Kohalmi grew up in the village of Nellingen-on-the-fields, a small village near Stuttgart in Germany. Although it was a rural setting, with architect parents, Susanne’s interactions with nature involved hikes and mushroom hunts but “mainly, we did cultural things: museums, archaeological sites, art galleries, you name it” she recalls, “we didn’t even have any pets”. Finishing high school in Heusenstamm near Frankfurt, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do “I investigated archeology, working in the hotel business, furniture restoration and biology” Dr. Kohalmi recalls, and chose biology in the end “because I wanted to know how living things work – it is so interesting that you can have a cell that talks to other cells and functions within an organism”.
This interest in molecular approaches made the first two years of biology at the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Universität in Frankfurt challenging: “the general biology focus was on field work, taxonomy, morphology, all these things I knew nothing about. When we went on field trips I was at a disadvantage because other students could just about predict what they would find under a rock before they picked it up – and certainly identify it. I had a vague idea that there might be some dirt, but because I had grown up with very different interests, I really didn’t find it very easy.” All that changed after 2 nd year, when she was able to start pursuing specialized interests in biology. The German system at the time was quite different to Canada – there was a five year Diploma, which was like undergraduate and Master’s degrees rolled into one, and Susanne majored in microbiology, the place for learning genetics and molecular biology (“and I was only about one course short of majoring in zoology, too, but I definitely didn’t want to learn anything about plants, because I thought they were boring” says Dr. Kohalmi, noting the irony that she is now a plant molecular biologist). For her Diploma thesis, Susanne worked on how mutations cause nucleotide imbalances in yeast. She recalls that her thesis was the first in the department to be generated on a computer!
“After my Diploma, I knew I wanted to go on and do something that included sequencing and cloning” (the exciting new technologies at the time), “and I found out about the DAAD scholarships that would pay me to go overseas to study. My supervisor at the time called up his former advisor Robert Haynes at York University and asked if I could include him as the destination on my application. After I applied, I heard that he was in Munich on sabbatical, so I borrowed a car to drive to meet him – he was impressed enough that I would drive three hours just to meet with him that he wrote another letter to DAAD encouraging them to offer me the scholarship!” Susanne landed in Toronto only to find that her new supervisor was in China “but everyone was really helpful and I enjoyed the lab and the people.” Working in the lab was a research fellow, Bernie Kunz, and as we got talking, I realised that he was working on exactly the project he was interested in. “By the time Bob returned from China, I was already working on the project with Bernie!” So they agreed on co-supervision and when Bernie was offered a tenure track position at the University of Manitoba, Susanne followed, eventually getting her PhD, on how nucleotide pool imbalances can cause and modify mutations in yeast.
“After my PhD, I felt like I was done with yeast, so I went to a big genetics conference in Toronto and went to every seminar I could, to try to figure out what I wanted to do. I had this realisation that plant genetics wasn’t just about breeding new varieties of corn, but I wasn’t sure what plant would work like the microorganisms I was used to. I heard about Arabidopsis (at the time I couldn’t even pronounce it), saw some on a lab tour, read up about it and immediately knew that this was the plant for me!” However, after starting a postdoc at the University of Saskatchewan with George Haughn, Susanne realised that the timescale for working with plants was completely different “I could transform E. coli overnight, yeast within a week, and it worked perfectly every time… in plants, it took me six months to get 11 transformed plants – and genetically they weren’t even the same!” However, her supervisor announced one day he was moving to Vancouver… but this provided the opportunity to start a second post-doc with Bill Crosby at the Plant Biotechnology Institute in Saskatoon. This new move allowed her to combine all her previous experiences and use the Yeast-2-hybrid system to study the ways that plant proteins interacted… but in yeast. “I do feel like all my past training keeps coming back to demand to be used again” she laughs.
Dr. Kohalmi moved to Western’s then department of Plant Sciences in 1996. “For a while, not much was working in the lab. This is a hazard of molecular biology, and it can be very challenging. I was working on floral development, and eventually we practically tripped over an enzyme required for phenylalanine synthesis. I wondered why it was involved in flower development, so I stopped by [plant biochemist] Mark Bernards’ office and asked him why he thought an enzyme like this could be involved in flower development. He immediately suggested several reasons.” These enzymes (arogenate dehydratases, or ADTs) turned out to be fertile research ground, and Susanne has found it very satisfying to build knowledge on them “when we started, the genes weren’t even annotated properly in the databases, whereas now we know a lot about their sequences, their variations, where they are produced, and we are starting to understand what they do in the plant as well”. Susanne’s interest in plants has expanded beyond the lab as well as she’s learned about flowers she has expanded into photography, and her office walls are festooned with exquisite images of an array of different flowers. Quite different from the Diploma student who thought plants were boring! Check out Dr. Kohalmi’s research here .
Questions for Dr. Susanne Kohalmi:
When I was growing up, I wanted … to be an adult and travel as I wanted to see how other people live.
My favourite organism is... none…all…I am interested in life. I find many organisms intriguing, amazing and often stunningly beautiful.
My first publication was about … plasmid retention in yeast.
My favourite piece of research was … my current research. I am absolutely intrigued and the more I learn the more questions I have.
Biology at Western is ... the place I meet and interact with people.
LINKS TO PAST FEATURED FACULTY, POSTDOCS and STAFF
- Dr. Yolanda Morbey and Dr. Lin Si
- Dr. Brian Branfireun and Dr. Jason Brown
- Dr. Greg Thorn and Dr. Silke Nebel
- Dr. Nusha Keyghobadi and Dr. Leon Kurepin
- Dr. Hugh Henry and Dr. Daria Koscinski
- Dr. Charles Trick and Dr. Irena Creed
- Dr. Liana Zanette and Brenda Beretta
- Dr. Richard Gardiner and Elizabeth Myscich
- Dr. Chris Guglielmo and Ian Craig
- Dr. Beth MacDougall-Shackleton and Kim Loney
- Dr. Robert Cumming and Jacqui Griffin
- Dr. Irena Creed
- Dr. Amanda Moehring
- Dr. Brent Sinclair
- Dr. Jack Millar
- Dr. John Wiebe
- Dr. Brent Sinclair
- Dr. Greg Kelly
Check back to this page regularly as we will be highlighting news breaking research/awards by other members of our Biology Department. To find out about other research in our Department please follow the links to individual faculty web sites
This page was last updated on
March 28, 2012
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