Testimonials for Pioneer Member Zinmay Renee Sung

Shu-Nong Bai – It’s my honor to write this testimonial supporting Professor Renee (Zinmay) Sung of UC Berkeley as a Pioneer of ASPB. My first meeting with Renee was in 1990, at an interview held in the Botanical Garden in Guangzhou, China, where I was applying for a postdoctoral fellowship at the Rice Biotechnology Project of the Rockefeller Foundation, and Renee was in an invited panelist. Thanks to her support, I received a fellowship to do my postdoc training at UC Berkeley. Afterward, I worked with Renee as a postdoctoral fellow from June 1991 to January 1994.

Renee was a well-known pioneer who introduced molecular biology to the study of somatic embryogenesis. In the 1980s, she played a leading role in efforts to clone genes preferentially expressed at the key stages of somatic embryogenesis. When I joined Renee’s lab at early 1990s, she was transitioning, shifting the research focus from gene cloning of carrot somatic embryogenesis to mutant genetics of Arabidopsis. However, this transition was mainly methodological, as the fundamental questions Renee kept asking were always the same: how are morphogenetic processes in plants genetically programed, particularly during embryogenesis. During mutant screening, Renee focused on mutants with aberrant phenotypes during an early developmental stage. Among the many mutants she identified, embryonic flower1 (emf1) was the one I worked with on my postdoctoral project.

In my opinion, the most significant contribution of the emf1 mutant is not the illustration of how the gene functions at the molecular level, but rather the interpretation of how vegetative development is integrated with reproductive development. Current dogma about the plant developmental process is that vegetative development is the default and reproduction is induced from the vegetative state. In the 1920s, F. Bower proposed the idea that the default developmental process was reproduction, while the vegetative phase was an interpolated process that prolonged activation of the reproductive process,which centered on meiosis and gametogenesis at unicellular level. Unfortunately, this insight was neglected for decades by mainstream plant biologists. Based on the mutant phenotype showing loss of vegetative development derived from the loss of EMF1 gene function, while reproductive development remained, Renee proposed vegetative development became interpolated when EMF1 function emerged (Sung et al, 1992; Bai and Sung, 1995). This interpretation revived Bower’s idea during the molecular biology era and enlightened those who were educated about only a few angiosperm species, and not familiar with the wisdom of classic botanists who had a broader range of knowledge, particularly from bryophytes to angiosperms. From an evolutionary perspective, Renee’s interpretation of the emf1 phenotype created an opportunity to decipher genetic programs underlying morphogenetic processes and discover principles generally applicable to all land plants, from bryophytes to angiosperms.

In Renee’s lab I was able to learn how professors in the world-class universities do research, and how knowledge of conceptual frameworks is examined through hypothesis testing and critical thinking. When I look back on my 28 years as a principle investigator, first at the Institute of Botany, China Academy of Sciences and then at Peking University, I feel the influence of Renee, her insight of plant biology and her attitude toward scientific activities. The most significant findings in plant biologyduring my career, from my point of view, including the concept of the “plant developmental unit”, “sexual reproduction cycle”, “plant morphogenesis 123” (Bai, 1999; 2015; 2017; 2019), were all developed in light of Renee’s interpretation of the emf1 phenotype. I believe Renee is definitely the pioneer who opened opportunities for me to explore the fascination of nature.

Sincerely yours, Dr. Shu-Nong Bai Emeritus Professor in Plant Developmental Biology College of Life Sciences, Peking University Beijing, 100871, P. R. China References Sung, Z. R., Belachew, A., Bai, S. and Bertrand Garcia, R. (1992) EMF, an Arabidopsis gene required for vegetative shoot development. Science 258: 1645-1647 Bai, S. and Sung, Z. R. (1995) The role of EMF1 in regulating the vegetative and reproductive transition in Arabidopsis thaliana (Brassicaeae), Am. J. Bot., 82(9):1095-1103 Bai, S. (1999) Phenomena, interpretation of the phenomena and the developmental unit in plants. in Advances of Botany Vol II, ed. Li, Chensheng. 52-69, Higher Education Publish House, Beijing Bai SN (2015) The concept of the sexual reproduction cycle and its evolutionary significance. Front. Plant Sci. 6:11. doi:10.3389/fpls.2015.00011 Bai SN (2017) Reconsideration of Plant Morphological Traits: From a Structure-Based Perspective to a Function-based Evolutionary Perspective. Front. Plant Sci. 8:345 doi: 10.3389/fpls.2017.00345 Bai SN (2019) Plant Morphogenesis 123: A Renaissance in Modern Botany? Sci. China Life Sci. 62(4):453-466.

Annette Chan – When I was a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley, I took a course on a brand new topic called “biotechnology.” This was a seminal event in my life, because it was in this class that I met Dr. Renee Sung. After taking her class, Prof. Sung allowed me to work in her lab on a project involving plant gametogenesis and embryogenesis. Later, she paid for me to present my work at a meeting in Hong Kong. I believe that the experience of doing undergraduate research in Prof. Sung’s lab and the opportunity to present my findings at an international meeting were instrumental in my getting accepted at UC Berkeley for my doctoral work. In addition, Prof. Sung helped me to get my first job after completing my undergraduate degree. Dr. Steve Ruzin, the director of the NSF Center for Plant Developmental Biology (now called the Biological Imaging Facility), had been looking for a technician. Prof. Sung told me about the job opening and introduced me to Dr. Ruzin. Dr. Ruzin later hired me, and this job directly led to my current job as the director of the Cell and Molecular Imaging Center at San Francisco State University. Because Prof. Sung recommended me to Dr. Ruzin so many years ago, I have the career that I have today. Furthermore, while completing my doctoral degree in plant biology, I met my future husband at the university, and I now have two sons. Because Prof. Sung helped me get into the doctoral program at UC Berkeley, she was influential in my personal life as well. I have no doubt that I am where I am today because of the unwavering encouragement and support that I received from Prof. Sung, and I am forever indebted to her.

Michael (Mike) Freeling – Renee and I were unique in our Department at UC Berkeley, because we originated from the original Department of Genetics and went back to the 1970s. Renee was my closest friend-colleague in our new department. Our discussions helped me be reasonably sane, and her dedication to the field of morphology, as distinct from evo-devo or molecular genetics, led to intellectually powerful ideas and discussions. Thanks Renee and to all of the vibrant members of the Sung lab.

Britt Glaunsinger – In addition to her impactful scientific work, Renee has been a tireless supporter of women in science and has made important contributions to undergraduate teaching, diversity, equity and inclusion.

Brian Lam – Professor Sung was the first to expose me to any kind of plant research during my undergrad years at UC Berkeley. She taught research skills that I could also apply to life, like always planning ahead and always having a back up plan. During my time as her student, I was able to see that she is committed to her role as a principal investigator, which led to me having a most valuable experience in plant research

Dhondup Lhamo – Renee has been a pioneer in her work on resolving mechanisms of polycomb group proteins in flowering and seed development. She has also made an immense contribution towards promoting women in science. Renee inspired me to pursue a PhD in plant biology at UC Berkeley. I am honored to say that I was amongst the last batch of students to take her plant course on ‘ABC model’ and do research as an undergraduate apprentice on ‘EMF genes’. Her research, support, leadership and mentorship roles are appreciated and worth recognition

Ruby Lin – Dr. Sung was an amazing research mentor when I was an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley 2010-2014. Her patience in introducing undergraduates to research created many career scientists

Andrew Liu – Professor Sung was my undergraduate research mentor at UC Berkeley, and she was instrumental to my growth as a researcher. She encouraged me to pursue my own interests and taught me what it meant to have a researcher’s spirit – to have an intellectual curiosity and make discoveries regardless of the time and situation.

Fiorella Lo Schiavo – I was an honor and a privilege to be hosted as a post doc in your lab at UC Berkeley in the eighties. It was an unforgettable time… very important for my future career and only the beginning of a long friendship! all the best, Fiorella

Yong-Hwan Moon – It is an honor for me to support Dr. Renee Z. Sung as a Pioneer of the ASPB. I was a postdoc in her lab during 1999-2003. I believe she deserves this recognition and title considering her achievements and contributions to the plant biology.

Li Pu – Renee is a leading researcher and has had a significant impact on plant developmental biology and epigenetic biology. I was the last one of Renee’s postdocs, working with her between 2011 and 2015, before she retired at the University of California, Berkeley. It was a really exciting time in the lab. I still remember we discussed the phenotype observed in the triple mutants. She was as excited as I was. Renee’s inexhaustible energy and passion for research, especially high quality science, have always been an inspiration for me. She led me to the wonderful world of plant epigenetics and really helped me become the scientist I am today. This experience and her strong support set the foundation for my scientific career. Renee supported me when I was a postdoc in her lab, and even after I left her lab. I learned how to think independently and pursue science. She was an outstanding mentor and promoted a group of young researchers, especially young women scientists, to thrive and later lead in their field. I will be forever grateful for her guidance and inspiration.

Jen Sheen – For me, Renee was an amazing role model for developing a career as an Asian woman scientist in a foreign country, long before DEI was prevalent. I thoroughly enjoyed our friendship and have continued to learn from her creativity, vision, courage, and unique insight into science and life.

Chang-Hsien Yang – Renee is full of energy. When I was a postdoctoral fellow in her lab (1992-1994), she provided me the opportunity to do experiments on my own, allowing me to learn and improve my ability to conduct research independently and establish my own future research in the field of flower development. To me, she is a mentor and a family member, and always there when I need her.