Doris Wagner

My unconventional path to plant biology

doris wagner in front of Lynch Lab with her bicycle

My mom has a green thumb and I grew up surrounded by plants. In Germany you decide on your future field of study in 11th grade. I loved literature and chose to study it, minoring in philosophy and politics. At the end of my second year, I become worried about what I would do for a living after earning my degree. While attending University was free, I worked throughout my studies plus took out a loan to cover rent and food as a low-income first-generation student. Concerned, I quit and worked on an organic vegetable farm, while figuring out what to do next. This dragged on so my dad suggested that I complete an apprenticeship, a combined hands-on and theoretical training in a trade (like farming or carpentry) that dates back to the middle-ages. The women that thought us was fantastic; Flore (flower in Dutch) made plant biology come alive for me. No small feat, I had hated the sciences throughout high school!


After finishing my two-year apprenticeship as a certified vegetable gardener, I enrolled in horticulture at a university and in my studies became more and more interested the basic sciences taught in the first two years of the program. The way one professor taught plant physiology really caught my interest and I ended up doing research his lab. However, switching from horticulture to Plant Biology turned out to be impossible, even though both tracks had the same initial coursework. My American husband (then boyfriend) had undergone a similar shift in directions. Together, we decided that our combined training resembled a bachelor degree and that we would apply to grad schools in the US. We studied together for the GRE and a kind professor at a nearby university agreed to teach us in one additional required subject not offered at our university. We applied to three graduate programs in the US. Amazingly, we got into all three schools. Looking back, I ask myself – what is the chance that something like this would work? I am so grateful for the trust placed in me and in my unconventional path. I love my work and would never have found it without a good bit of serendipity, three outstanding teachers and some leaps of faith. And who knows, maybe the many plants that surrounded me when I was little also mattered. I have not entirely turned my back on literature; in my free time I read novels and short stories.

What we do

I am excited about learning how to ‘speak’ the language of plants so we can program both plant resilience to climate change, and when and where plants make flowers, fruits and seeds. To gain mechanistic insight, we use fundamental research, deciphering the contribution of the epigenome to stress response and applying novel approaches like single-molecule FISH or spatial transcriptomics to observe how changing environments affect individual cells in organisms.