Toby Kiers investigates how cooperation between species evolves and persists. Her recent work focuses on resource trading in nature and how complex ‘biological markets’ can emerge among plants and microbes. She is interested in when and why organisms defect from cooperation, and how cheating strategies emerge in nature. Kiers received her doctoral degree from University of California, Davis in 2005. She is now a University Research Chair and Professor of Mutualistic Interactions at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. We are happy to announce that Toby Kiers will be a key note speaker at FEMS 2019.
More information: tobykiers.com
What inspired you to get to where you are today?
I am interested in the evolution of deception and cheating in nature. I had an amazing teacher that would use deception as a tool to teach us science. He would invent these incredibly complicated stories about the world, and it was our job to determine what was true and what was not. It made us think about the natural world in a different way, and question our own assumptions about what was possible.
How do you see your research impacting the field of microbiology?
While historically the field of symbiosis has been focused on identifying how partners benefit from cooperation and dependence, my research is defined by the reverse vantage point: conflict. I am interested in the selfish individuals that exploit symbiotic cooperation, with the aim of understanding how conflict drives evolutionary innovation.
Which current microbiologists or microbiology heroes inspire you as a scientist?
Evolutionary theory is powerful – it is probably the most powerful tool we have as biologists. So I am most inspired by microbiologists that work in an evolutionary framework to understand patterns and processes. I also like troublemakers.
What were your reasons for getting involved as a keynote speaker at the upcoming FEMS 2019 Congress?
My aim is to stimulate a curiosity about the underground. There are these vast unexploded networks of microbes functioning under our feet. They have evolved incredible strategies to manipulate eachother and their environment. Ultimately, we need a better understanding microbial behaviour. There is so much unknown about the underground, it seems an ideal place to start.
The microbiology landscape is constantly changing with new discoveries and research findings. In your opinion, what are today’s most emerging topics in microbiology?
To me, it is not about the emerging topics, but the questions being asked. I am interested in brave questions. In some ways, research is becoming too incremental and prescribed. I think the microbiology landscape could be improved with bold and daring questions. The most exciting research is when dots are connected in ways that once seemed impossible, for example merging biophysics and microbiology to study microbial behaviour. This allows us to see patterns never seen before.
What advice would you give to today’s early career researchers?
Two pieces of advice. The first is to take risks. The second is to take inspiration outside your field.