June 14

Marjorie R. Lundgren

Marjorie R. Lundgren, Postdoctoral Research Associate,
University of Sheffield


What is your work/research topic? I study how complex traits evolve. Specifically, I use the example of photosynthesis and piece together the sequence of modifications required to form the complex C4 photosynthetic system. To do this, I use C3-C4 intermediate plants, which are particularly interesting as they are not really C3 or C4 plants, but instead are evolutionary intermediate states between the two commonly known photosynthetic phenotypes.

LUNDGREN_M3Marjorie R. Lundgren is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Sheffield. Follow Marjorie on Twitter @Marj_Lundgren

What was your best day of science? In the field, in Tanzania, when I found my very first living C3-C4 intermediate plant. I was ecstatic. 

What was your worst day in science? I had just completed a PCR and ran a gel on a whole 96-well plate of samples, which included a crazy combination of different genotypes and primers. All had worked perfectly- I was chuffed. Then, when I tried to remove the sealed plastic lid to prepare the samples for sequencing, the whole plate slipped and all the PCR samples sprayed across the lab bench and myself, firmly contaminating my lab coat and bench and also losing all of that meticulous work. I cried, or more accurately, I bawled- like 3-year-old convulsive bawling. I walked into the hallway and immediately ran into my supervisor. I could barely explain myself in between the sobs. I grabbed my coat and went home. 

What did you study at university? Broadly: BA- environmental studies; MA- biology; PhD-animal & plant sciences
Specifically: BA- invasibility of habitats; MA- role of phenotypic plasticity in evolution; PhD- C4 complex trait evolution

What does your average day look like? Oh, that is a hard one. I don’t have an average day. If there is a common theme across my days, it would be that I multitask to a fault. 

What are some of the highlights of your career right now? I have identified the most photosynthetically diverse single species on the planet (it includes C3, C3-C4, C4-like, and C4 phenotypes- this is virtually unknown at the species level) [1]. I’ve also changed what we know about the ecological transitions that occur in during C4 evolutions. Mainly that the ecological shifts that people had traditionally associated with C4 evolution actually occur prior to C4 emergence, in C3-C4 intermediates [2]. Thus, the evolution of C4 photosynthesis expands the ecological niche, rather than shifting it as previously thought [3].

What is your favorite piece of technology of equipment you get to use in your job? Hands down, the LI-COR 6800 portable photosynthesis machine. It is a beautiful piece of kit.    


Where did you grow up? I was born and raised in Higganum, Connecticut, USA in the same house that my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather lived in.

LUNDGREN_M2What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? My sisters will tell you that I wanted to be a cowgirl, and that they apparently have audio evidence to back up their claims. 

What do you do to relax outside of lab? Cooking. I relax when I prepare a meal for my partner and me after work each day. I also like to entertain and prepare extravagant meals for my friends. 

Do you have any pets? Sadly, I am quite allergic to the cute furry ones. 

Do you have any fun hobbies? Does work count if I think that it is fun

If you want to talk about your family, what is your family life? How did your family develop alongside your career? I plead the fifth. More specifically, I am undecided, and yet unfortunately too old to be undecided. I am 37 and need to have decided if I want children about five years ago. My indecision is making the decision for me. 


What is your best advice for girls interested in science? At the risk of being cliché, I advise to do what you think is impossible. Apply to that top school. Send your manuscript to that seemingly unattainable journal. Email the god-like professor. And definitely apply for that position for which you think you are under qualified. So many of the best achievements in my career came out of doing what I nearly talked myself out of doing, arguing why should I even try to do the impossible. I’ve since learned that the word impossible is really just a mirage. 

Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist? Not a single person that I can think of. Would it be weird to list me? Once I passed that cowgirl phase, I just always knew that I needed to be a scientist. I didn’t really think twice about it.  

Why were you drawn to science? I was always drawn to science, and plants in particular. I grew up on a hobby farm in a rural bit of the northeastern US. I was the youngest of 7 children so, by the time that I came around, my parents loosened up and basically let me wander about at will. Thus, I spent much of my childhood playing in the cow fields, woodlands, and nearby streams, which ultimately fueled my inquisitiveness for the natural world. My education aligned very well with my current career path. I wavered for a bit in my 20s when I looked into other career choices. Honestly, even my backup career choices were science-based though. 


What was your biggest challenge during your degree? Doubting myself/low self-esteem and mild PhD fueled depression. 

What was your biggest motivation to obtain your PhD? I initially started a PhD immediately after finishing my BA degree. Unfortunately, I entered this PhD program for the wrong reasons (i.e., I didn’t know what else to do with my life) and I was personally too young to be very successful at academia yet. So I quit that PhD after about 2.5 years and moved across the country to California with my boyfriend, who later became my husband.

Once in California I worked as a research assistant in wetland ecology at UCLA, then as an environmental consultant focusing on water quality and wetland ecology, and finally as a lab technician at a biotechnology company working in plant physiology.

So there I was, at the very end of my 20s, working at a biotechnology company as a lab technician. I had moved up to the very highest job position that one could achieve at the company without a PhD. I knew that I needed to either change careers or take the next step. I was also going through some personal life changes that included divorcing my husband (i.e., the whole reason that I was in California in the first place) and entering a relationship with someone who, as it turns out, was a bit unhinged (I now refer to him as “my stalker”).

After a lot of thought, I decided to start a PhD but this time with the very specific goal to remain in academia and ultimately become a tenured professor. And that is how I came to move across the planet and do a PhD in Sheffield, UK.

The time that I spend outside of my direct academic career path, while being a research assistant, environmental consultant, and biotechnology lab technician, helped me to gain perspective. I am an immensely stronger, more capable, and creative scientist for having taken time away from academia.

If you left academia, what do you think the biggest hurdle would be moving into industry/other? In academia, I feel like I never really turn off. I am always working and thinking about my research. It is more of a lifestyle than a job, whereas industry was a 9-5 job for me. I left it at the door each evening and on weekends. So the academia-industry transition was really a science “as a lifestyle vs as a job dichotomy for me. 

Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? The career sector should represent the demographics of human population as a whole and, as such, we should aim for a similar gender breakdown in STEM as we have in humans. 


What is your favorite book? I really like Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything”. It gives a taste of all things scientific. I’ve listened to it on audiobook while in the lab a million times. 

What is your favorite desk snack? Popcorn thins (like rice cakes, but with popcorn). I’m also on a radish kick right now. 

What is your favorite cartoon? Do the animations in the YouTube channel CrashCourse videos count? (Incidentally, if you’ve not watched any Crash Course videos, do.)

What would you listen to while writing? No can do. I need complete silence to write- it’s a problem. I sometimes listen to white noise on my iPhone if there is too much background noise. 

What was your favorite subject in high school? I’m split between British Literature and an open, informal science class that I took. The science class let the students pick a science paper and try to replicate the experiment. It was my first big science experiment, from planning to writing up. And British Literature was just fun. 

What’s the strangest thing on your desk right now? A hollowed-out gourd that I picked up on the roadside in rural Zambia. 

Organizational nut or curate chaos? Firmly both. I start the day with a clean desk but jumble it up throughout the day, crescendoing to a chaotic state by about 5pm. However, everyday before I leave, I clean and reorganize my whole desk and write out a new to-do list for the following day. This system works for me. 

What color socks are you wearing? Almost exclusively black. 

Any other fun facts about you? 

Here are a few:

– I had a horrible bought of Lyme disease in 2002-3 after spending the summer working on some terrestrial forest ecology projects in Connecticut during which time I found deer ticks crawling on me nearly every day. Apparently I missed one.

– When I was a child, I thought that wearing socks and ironing clothes were both incredibly useless things. I’ve changed my mind about the socks. I still never iron clothes.

– I played the flute for 11 years until I had the epiphany one day that I didn’t remotely like the instrument and immediate quit playing it. I have never regretted this decision at all.

– I am the youngest of 7 children, which means that I was lucky enough to have six older siblings to torment me throughout my childhood. That, and I only had access to hand-me-down clothing until I was in high school.


  1. Lundgren MR, Christin PA, Gonzalez Escobar E, Ripley BS, Besnard G, Long CM, Hattersley PW, Ellis RP, Leegood RC, and CP Osborne. 2016. Evolutionary implications of C3-C4 intermediates in the grass Alloteropsis semialata. Plant, Cell & Environment 39: 1974-1885.
  2. Lundgren MR and Christin PA. In press. Despite phylogenetic effects, C3-C4 lineages bridge the ecological gap to C4 photosynthesis. Journal of Experimental Botany.
  3. Lundgren MR, Besnard G, Ripley BS, Lehmann CER, Chatelet DS, Ralf G. Kynast, Namaganda M, Vorontsova MS, Hall RC, Elia J, Osborne CP, and P-A Christin. 2015. Photosynthetic innovation broadens the niche within a single species. Ecology Letters 18: 1021-1029.

BLOG/WEBSITE: http://christinlab.group.shef.ac.uk/lundgren.html