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2020 Speakers

Ahead of their time: Women pioneers in plant biology

Danijela Poljuha, Speaker at Plant Science Conferences
Institute of Agriculture and Tourism, Croatia (Hrvatska)
Title : Ahead of their time: Women pioneers in plant biology


RAlien species invasion is recognised as one of the most severe and challenging global environmental threats. Introduced species may become invasive and displace native species, modify habitats, change community structure, affect ecosystem processes or wider ecosystem functioning. Further invasive species often impede the provision of ecosystem services and cause substantial economic losses. Tree of Heaven, Ailanthus altissima (Mill.) Swingle, native to Southeast Asia is today considered one of the most widespread invasive plant species in Europe and North America and is a subject of modern invasion ecology research. A. altissima happens to be the research subject of the first PhD thesis in plant biology made by a woman in Croatia in the beginning of the 20th century, when the tree was cultivated as an ornament. Vjera Petaj, a passionate botanist and one of the first female students at the Royal University of Francis Joseph I in Zagreb (Croatia) used microscopy techniques for the investigation of morphology, anatomy, microchemistry, and biology of its extrafloral nectaries. All her results were later confirmed by modern microscopy techniques and contributed to the knowledge of their morphology and role in species physiology. A half century later, a similar topic of extrafloral nectaries on Vicia faba L., and similar techniques of electron microscopy, were the focus of interest for another Croatian female scientist, Mercedes Wrischer. She was one of the pioneers of plant electron microscopy, whose electron micrographs of cell organelles were displayed in European biology textbooks.

This presentation will offer an insight into social elements, particularly the status of women in the Croatian and European academic community in the early 20th century. The beginnings of the once highly appreciated, so-called Zagreb School of Electron Microscopy will also be presented. The results of those early microscopy works will be shown and linked with current research on the topic. The presentation will also focus on the ecology of A. altissima and its negative impact on the environment and human health. Conversely, potential ecosystem services, that this invasive plant species can provide, will also be discussed.

Audience Take away:
• This presentation will be a tribute to gender equality in STEM. By highlighting women pioneers in plant biology and STEM the hope is to provide inspirational role models for women scientists. The two stories will shed light on the difficulties women faced in tackling scientific problems, but also in overcoming social and professional obstacles just because of their gender. The aim of the talk is thus also to raise awareness and encourage further discussion on the ongoing gender based obstacles in STEM and science in general
• The presentation will provide insight into the still not entirely clarified role and function of extrafloral nectaries in plant physiology
• On the example of A. altissima, the audience will get an overview of the highly destructive global impacts of alien invasive plant species and also an insight into the possibilities to balance their invasive (negative) properties with possible uses in boosting ecosystem services


Dr Poljuha graduated from molecular biology at the Faculty of Science, University of Zagreb (Croatia), where she also holds a PhD degree in natural sciences in the field of biology. She has worked as a researcher at the Faculty of Science, University of Zagreb, The Institute of Agriculture and Tourism Poreč, and The Materials Research Center METRIS Pula. She has participated in 27 national and international projects and has published over 50 scientific papers. She is the founder of two laboratories and a Biotechnical Department. Her research interests are focused on invasive plants’ phytochemistry, plant genetics, and molecular markers’ application in the conservation of plant genetic resources. She is also involved with the popularization of science.

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