Plant Physiologist  What They Do

Just the Facts

Insider Info

dotPlant physiologists study the physical, chemical and biological functions of living plants, from the whole plant down to the cellular level. They're interested in how the plant functions -- what processes take place inside plants, how plants grow and produce fruit and oxygen, and what causes plants to die.

dotTraditionally, most plant physiologists are found on college campuses, but the number of plant physiologists working in private institutions is on the rise. Oil companies, pharmaceutical companies, chemical companies, paper companies and especially biotechnology companies need the expertise of plant physiologists.

Professor Don Armstrong teaches plant physiology. "There are jobs like mine in university situations. There are also jobs associated with governmental agencies, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture [or] the Environmental Protection Agency."

According to Armstrong, these are the two government agencies that actively hire plant physiologists in the U.S.

Obtaining a top research position may require graduate study, but a bachelor's degree will open doors to entry-level laboratory positions both in universities and private industry.

And as with other hard-science fields, botanists and plant physiologists interested in working in marketing or sales will find plenty of opportunities to use their knowledge in unique ways.

dotPlant physiologists are hard at work in several areas of study, called subdisciplines:

  • Researching how plants help clean the environment of pollutants -- this research could lead to environmental clean-up plans that use plants to undo human damage
  • Researching ways to make plants disease-resistant -- one study produced an American chestnut tree that is resistant to a disease that nearly wiped it out in the eastern United States
  • Figuring out ways to genetically engineer healthier plants -- for example, in one recent study, participants ate potatoes that contained a vaccine

Alissa Devereaux did graduate work in plant agriculture. She studied antioxidant levels in plants. Since antioxidants are believed to prevent heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's disease and diabetes, she worked to find out how to increase these levels.

As you can see, whatever subdiscipline they pursue, plant physiologists are concerned mainly with the interaction between the natural world of plants and human society.

dotExactly what plant physiologists do during their workdays varies, depending on their specialty. Some spend a considerable amount of time outdoors, collecting samples in forests or crop fields and observing changes in plants under natural conditions. That may mean being outside in nasty weather, walking long distances and getting dirty.

Others work with plants on a molecular level. This means working in laboratories, conducting and repeating experiments. Others still may spend time in the classroom, teaching students about the field.

Almost all work standard workdays and weeks. However, there are times when they feel a heavier load. When completing a research project or nearing the end of term at university, things can be busier than usual.

At a Glance

Research the functions of plants

  • There are job prospects in the private sector
  • A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement
  • Some work in labs; others teach