The professional heights to which world-class plant cell biologist Natasha Raikhel has reached today may have much to do with the inspiration she received as a girl in St. Petersburg, Russia, from her parents and Relya Yasnaya, a close friend of her maternal grandmother.
Although they lived in World War II-torn Leningrad, the parents provided a nurturing and culturally rich atmosphere at home where Raikhel thrived. Aunt Relya, meanwhile, sowed in the young and impressionable girl, the seeds of personal ambition and high esteem.
Her sage advice went on to shape Raikhel’s life, forever describing her approach to work.
“If you believe in yourself,” the advice went, “you can achieve whatever you desire.”
Today, decades later and thousands of miles from St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), Raikhel is the Ernst and Helen Leibacher Chair and Distinguished Professor of Plant Cell Biology and Genetics at UC Riverside. She also is the founding director of the Center for Plant Cell Biology (CEPCEB), which focuses on plant genomics, the study of plant genes and their function.
Her journey has had its share of difficulties. But Raikhel is known among her colleagues to be energetic and driven, a scientist who simply goes where questions in plant cell biology lead. Stimulated to solve problems, she finds satisfaction in completing, to the best of her ability, any task she takes on.
“Natasha has gone from strength to strength as she has identified important questions and learned – and in some cases, invented – the novel techniques needed to answer those questions. She is creative, experimentally fearless and intellectually flexible,” said colleague Sharon Long, dean of Stanford University’s School of Humanities and Sciences.
Raikhel is the mother of two grown sons, one of whom is an aspiring anthropologist, while the other is studying classical music composition.
The daughter of a surgeon and an X-ray technician, she is a staunch believer in setting high standards and recommends that young people, including her sons, work hard to achieve their personal goals.
Her advice to the young is to strive for excellence in their chosen fields at all times and live up to their personal potential.
“My own working process remains faithful to the early lessons I learned from my parents and Aunt Relya,” she said.
Besides the profound impact her family members have had on her, other crucial factors influenced Raikhel’s success and rise to fame in the scientific community, including her willingness to make sound, life-changing decisions when necessary, her luck for good timing and her devotion to hard work.
Recognizing in her teens that, while she was accomplished at playing the piano, she likely would not excel in it to the degree she wished, she steered her career from music to science, a decision she has never looked back upon with regret.
Easily, she delved into biology while continuing to nurture her artistic interests. With time, her passion for science and her admiration for the scientific method helped her become a respected zoologist at the University of Leningrad, where she specialized in invertebrate studies. A friendship with a visiting American scientist, the late Jerome Paulin of the University of Georgia, Athens, resulted, eventually, in her immigrating to the United States in 1979, her husband and their 4-year-old son in tow, and just $25 in their pockets.
“We were fortunate to be able to land jobs as postdoctoral associates at the University of Georgia,” Raikhel said. “As Jews, we were allowed to emigrate from the USSR; however, it was difficult during that time to do this and even harder to find jobs that would allow us to continue in our chosen profession in the United States because nobody knew us or our previous work.
“But we persevered and found positions. My husband, Alex, and I wanted our son to have better opportunities in life, and it was really his birth thatmotivated us to leaveRussia.”
For Raikhel, it was a stroke of luck that while Paulin was a visiting scientist in the USSR, he was at the Institute of Cytology, Academy of Sciences, where Raikhel worked at that time.
“Moreover, his desk was next to mine,” Raikhel said. “We became friends.When Alex, my son and I arrived in the United States, Jerry was the only person we knew. He and his wife greatly facilitated our adjustment to a new country.”
The new country, where her second son was born, soon brought several other helpful people into Raikhel’s life – people who were critical to her survival.
She also entered an academic social community that differed in several important ways from the comparatively rigid Soviet system she left behind.
In America she found a place where her diligence and scientific successes were rewarded with prestige and where both intellectual and economic success were attainable goals.
“I also profited from the freedom for self-determination I found here,” she said. Then, early in her scientific career, Raikhel made another prescient career choice: she switched the organisms she studied.
Suspecting that funding for her research on free-living ciliated protozoa would be difficult to obtain, she directed her research efforts toward understanding plant cell biology – an area of science in which, at the time, investigation was beginning to gather momentum, with support for it burgeoning within the academic, agricultural and economic communities.
Fairly quickly, plant cell mysteries consumed Raikhel’s interest. She posed tough questions to understand plant cell development and function, especially the role their thick, rigid cell-walls play in effectively defending the plant against exposure to the harsher qualities of its environment.
A cell contains substructures called organelles, Raikhel explains, each of which is surrounded by a membrane, allowing the possibility for spatially ordered function within the cell where otherwise a sort of spatial chaos might reign.
“Compartments in cells are necessary to isolate and secure proteins – large molecules that play a key role in the structure, function and regulation of the cell as a whole,” she said. “To put it simply, the cell can be likened to a city.Without many services, or functions, including utilities for power and police for safety, cities could not function efficiently.”
Similarly, cells have evolved a highly complex organization of functions to sustain life, she said. Within this molecular city, some of the key building blocks are proteins, which first have to be produced in the correct place and then delivered to their proper destinations within the cell. Failure of any of these processes could poison other dynamic processes occurring within the intracellular environment and cause the entire cell’s destruction.
The fundamental knowledge obtained from Raikhel’s research on plant cells is vital.
Chris Somerville, professor of biological sciences and director of the Carnegie Institute of Plant Research at Stanford University, applauds Raikhel for defining many of the basic cellular processes that plants use to direct proteins to various types of membranes in plant cells.
“Natasha’s work during the past 20 years has greatly expanded our knowledge of basic cellular processes in plants,” he said. “Whereas 20 years ago we did not know any protein that participated in carrying out secretory processes in plants, today many of the components are known and their roles understood due to the work of Natasha and her collaborators.”
In 2002, UCR’s cadre of outstanding plant scientists and entomologists caught the attention of the Raikhels. When she learned of the faculty and administration’s enthusiasm and support for the idea of making UCR a leading center in the world for research in plant cell biology, Natasha Raikhel decided to leave the Plant Research Laboratory at Michigan State University, where she held a University Distinguished Professor position, to join UCR. Alex Raikhel joined the Department of Entomology.
Upon her arrival on campus, Raikhel’s efforts, imagination and vision, along with the help she received from the UCR community, resulted in 2002 in the formation of the Center for Plant Cell Biology (CEPCEB) – an interdisciplinary group of high-caliber engineers, chemists, plant biologists, plant pathologists and computer scientists seeking to determine the function of proteins within living plant cells and the whole plant.
“CEPCEB provides an excellent environment for cutting-edge plant cell biology, genetics and genomics,” said Thomas Eulgem, a faculty member who joined the center in 2003 and works on uncovering gene regulatory mechanisms required for plant immune responses. “It has a superb core instrumentation facility as well as highly ambitious and outstanding staff and faculty. Its strong focus on ‘chemical genomics,’ which is a relatively new area of research, combined with several other areas of excellence, like gene silencing, makes it unique in the world.”
Under Raikhel’s direction, CEPCEB has quickly evolved into a state-of-the-art “genomics” plant cell biology group. Its Core Instrumentation Facility, available to scientists throughout the UCR campus and to visiting scientists from other institutions, is used to perform highly specialized, state-of-the-art experiments. The center has received several large genomic and training grants, including two Research Experience for Undergraduates grants from the National Science Foundation and the first NSF Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship grant at UCR. Raikhel attributes the center’s success to the interdisciplinary nature of the group of scientists and support staff who have worked together to further the center’s scientific goals.
“Our work provides benefits that are perhaps not as obvious to non-experts,” she said. “For example, much of our work involves understanding very basic cellular processes of protein transport, which is not understood in detail in any organism. We work with the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana because it is much easier to manipulate than most animal models, and yet the information can be applied to more complex systems. The knowledge we gain may thus have wide applications beyond agriculture including the biomedical sciences.”
Raikhel’s reputation for excellence in her field, along with her encouragement and interest in her graduate and postdoctoral students, is a major factor in the decision of many students to work in plant cell biology at UCR. This was the case with graduate student April Agee.
“The foundations we laid during my first summer with Dr. Raikhel were invaluable,” Agee said. “She is supportive during successes as well as failures, and she encourages me to learn from mistakes.”
As any elementary textbook on biology points out, without plants there would be no life on the Earth.We need plants more than they need us, Raikhel informs her students. The only organisms known to create their own sustenance from light and basic elements, plants play a crucial role in nature and help to support all forms of life on Earth.
While genetics has been a major approach to understanding plants’ cellular processes, the method has limitations, Raikhel concedes.
To extend the method’s reach, her laboratory is becoming heavily involved in chemistry and computational biology, and generating strong collaborations with other scientists around the world.
Combining these disciplines with genetics, genomics and cell biology, a small pioneering group of plant scientists at UCR and elsewhere has moved beyond many of the limitations of traditional genetics and introduced chemical genomics, which promises to uncover novel cellular processes.
“Another of Natasha’s major contributions to research is having developed the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana as the organism of choice for plant cell biology,” said Elizabeth Lord, a CEPCEB scientist, a professor of botany and vice provost for academic personnel. “Some time ago she understood the importance of the ‘Arabidopsis revolution’ and incorporated molecular genetics and now genomics into her cell biology research program.”
Today, Raikhel continues to explore new areas of the plant cell and make seminal findings. Her visibility has added to UCR’s international recognition, notes Steven Angle, dean of the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences.
“Her stature has helped us recruit several other leading plant cell biologists,” he said. “We are truly privileged to have the benefit of her wisdom, hard work and experience, as well as her profound insights into fundamental plant cell biology. Her leadership is responsible for CEPCEB’s rapid development and prominence in the plant cell biology community.”
Raikhel’s career in plant cell biology, her support of women in science and her mentorship of young scientists were applauded when she received the Women in Cell Biology Senior Career Recognition Award in 2002 from the American Society for Cell Biology. Two years later, she was honored with the Stephen Hales Prize of the American Society of Plant Biologists, an award given to only the most noteworthy of plant biologists. A member of several national and international boards, Raikhel also was, until 2005, the editor in chief of the journal Plant Physiology for five years.
Somerville is not surprised at Raikhel’s success. “Natasha usually has clear goals, a high level of enthusiasm and is highly organized. So fumbling around is frowned upon. She is also a consensus builder and makes an effort to achieve a common view and a common level of commitment to a project by everyone involved,” he said.
Raikhel believes that the secret to her strength and her drive to succeed lies, at least in part, in loving what she has chosen to do in her professional life and in her continued commitment to the tasks at hand.
“I am blessed also by the relationships I have had, and continue to have, with the many wonderful people I have met and learned from,” Raikhel said. “It’s to all of them, starting with Aunt Relya and my parents, I owe so much.” Research focus: Signaling and gene regulation