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Jennifer Pluznick of Physiology on zooming in on the small details to understand an organism.
What made you choose physiology?
PLUZNICK: I was always interested in science. I was a Biology major in college, and with every course, I decided that that particular type of science was what I wanted to do. So when I took genetics, I wanted to be a geneticist. When I took ecology, I wanted to go into that field. Physiology was the last course in the sequence.
So your choice of discipline was just a matter of timing?
PLUZNICK: Not entirely. I really enjoyed physiology. You take something at the molecular level and then you have to ask, how is this molecule important to the whole organism? So it’s a reductionist approach at first, but then you have to relate your findings to the whole animal.
I like trying to discover how things work on a reductionist level. But I find it much more satisfying if I can begin to tease out not only how something works but why it works: Why is it important for the whole organisms that certain molecules are interacting in a certain way?
Is there a discovery in physiology that you find particularly amazing?
PLUZNICK: A foundational principle of renal function is that the different parts of the nephron (the basic unit of the kidney) have specialized jobs with regards to ion transport. For example, some parts of the nephron absorb a certain ion (such as potassium), whereas other parts secrete potassium. Now that we understand this, it seems to make perfect sense. But deciphering the complex pathways involved, without any prior knowledge or concept of how the kidney was handling each ion, has always amazed me.
You’re a member of the Communications Committee for the American Physiological Society. Why did you choose that particular committee?
PLUZNICK: The committee’s charge is to help assure that science is communicated well to the public, to explain physiological sciences and to show why it’s important to fund science. I believe that we have the responsibility to explain what we do to the press and the public. We should take the time to discuss our work with those who are interested—this can start with simple things, for instance, talking about science to people we meet in airports who ask, “What do you do?”
When you meet someone on a plane who asks that question, what do you say?
PLUZNICK: I initially tell them that I’m a scientist and that I do kidney research. I don’t want to give a scientific spiel if they’re not ready to hear it.
But many people are interested. Often someone will say, “My aunt had kidney disease,” or “My uncle had a kidney stone.” Then if they ask me for more information, I’ll say that we accidentally stumbled upon the fact that receptors in the nose are also found in the kidney. People often have lots of interesting thoughts about that, and some even suggest experiments we could do.
Has anyone ever suggested an experiment you wanted to try in your lab?
PLUZNICK: From our airplane conversations? Not yet.
--Interviewed by Melissa Hendricks
Jen Pluznick on the role of smell receptors in the kidney .
Jen Pluznick describes the research in her lab: studying olfactory and taste receptors and their role in helping the kidney maintain homeostasis.
-- Interviewed by Catherine Kolf