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Planting Independence: A Profile of Katayoon Dehesh

After a harrowing escape from Iran, Dehesh never shied away from difficult choices to pursue a career in plant biology.

Feb 1, 2018
Anna Azvolinsky

Katayoon (Katie) Dehesh
 Director, Institute for Integrative Genome Biology
 Ernst and Helen Leibacher Endowed Chair
 Professor of Molecular Biochemistry
 University of California, Riverside
COURTESY OF KATAYOON DEHESH
In September 1980, just as the Iran-Iraq War was beginning, Katayoon Dehesh was an assistant professor at National University (now Shahid Beheshti University) in Tehran teaching biology. She had returned home to Iran from the United Kingdom in 1977 after receiving a PhD in plant biology, and aside from lecturing, Dehesh was participating in mandatory military service that barred her from leaving the country. She was also told that she couldn’t teach on religiously significant days, but Dehesh disregarded the order, continuing to hold her scheduled classes.

At the same time, Dehesh was making plans to join the lab of a professor in Germany who was working on salt tolerance in plants—the subject of her PhD thesis. All commercial flights were grounded because of the war, so a bus ticket was the only way out of the country. But these were booked up by other people wanting to leave Iran. Then, abruptly, all of the embassies in Iran closed, and no one could exit without a visa.

“Suddenly, there were many available bus tickets,” says Dehesh, now the director of the Institute for Integrative Genome Biology at the University of California, Riverside. “I packed a small suitcase and said goodbye to my mother, who was crying, and my father and sister, who thought I was mad to leave. But I thought my life was in danger because I had spoken out about the religious policies at the university and, as such, I could not work there.”

Dehesh got on a night bus that drove without lights to avoid the Iraqi bombers. At the Iran-Turkey border, a guard asked to see Dehesh’s exit visa, which she didn’t have. Her student visa and a letter from the German professor inviting her to work in his lab were of no avail. “‘No, where is your exit visa? I cannot let you go without an exit visa, go back on the bus,’ he kept saying to me.”

As luck would have it, a man behind Dehesh was caught with a secret compartment in his bag that held money and jewelry, diverting the guards’ attention. “The border was just this low bar that you could jump over and you would be in Turkey.” Dehesh bolted and jumped a barrier, escaping Iran, and hasn’t returned since.

Dehesh says that she has not told this story publicly before. “I never talk about it. It saddens me,” she says. “But I am getting older and getting over all that. That’s life.”

A budding plant biologist

Dehesh was born in Tehran in 1952. Her father was a colonel in the Iranian army, and her mother was a homemaker. Dehesh was the fifth of six children. From her mother, she learned about equality between boys and girls and the value of higher education. “She has a very strong personality and really drilled into her three daughters that marriage was not the goal,” Dehesh says of her mom. “She wanted us to strive to be independent and accomplished. Perhaps that is why all of my siblings and I have PhD degrees.”

In 1969, Dehesh entered Pahlavi University (now Shiraz University) in southern Iran, an American-style college with classes taught in English. There, she joined the political, anti–royal family movement, giving speeches and marching in demonstrations. Dehesh’s political activism came at the expense of her schoolwork—she failed all of her first-semester courses except for Farsi literature.

“My supervisor called me into his office and said, ‘Why are you wasting my time and your time and taking a precious space that can be given to a man who will be the breadwinner of a family? Why don’t you drop out and learn how to cook and sew?’” Dehesh recalls. “That just electrified me. I gave up all of the political activities and studied, because otherwise I would be thrown out.” She earned high marks in all her classes the following semester.

The border was just this low bar that you could jump over and you would be in Turkey.

In her second year, Dehesh, inspired by a scientific excursion she took to the salty Lake Maharloo, discovered she wanted to study plants. “I saw these beautiful succulent plants growing around the lake. It was amazing to me that these plants could grow in so much salt,” she says. “I suddenly wanted to become a plant biologist.”

After graduating in 1973, Dehesh flew with her mother and aunt to London, where members of her family were studying, with the intent of finding a PhD program. Instead of applying by mail, she knocked on professors’ doors because she “didn’t know how to apply in advance,” says Dehesh.

On a drive with relatives, Dehesh passed by the University of Sussex. She was captivated by the red brick buildings and asked to stop so she could look around. Dehesh found the plant biology building and asked a secretary to arrange for her to speak to the department’s chair.

The next morning, Dehesh met with the department head, James Sutcliffe, and told him that she wanted to understand the physiology and biochemistry of Salicornia, a succulent plant that grows around the salt lakes of Iran. “I didn’t know he was the head of a renowned institute on salt tolerance and salt and iron uptake!”

Dehesh made an impression on Sutcliffe, who told her to bring her undergraduate transcript the next morning. To get them, Dehesh took a train and bus to London to pick them up and returned the next day to present the documents to Sutcliffe. As a sort of entrance exam, he asked her what she would do first to initiate her research project. “I know that Brighton is on the English Channel and that the water is salt, so there must be some kind of Salicornia here to collect and study. I would first grow them in different salt concentrations,” she proposed. Satisfied with Dehesh’s answer, Sutcliffe offered her a PhD position in his lab.

The salt life

Dehesh applied for and received two PhD scholarships from Iran to study abroad because, she says, “there were not that many women that applied.” In Sutcliffe’s lab, Dehesh explored the mechanism of salt tolerance in Salicornia plants around England. “We were among the first to show the compounds that plant cells produce in the cytoplasm to retain a high internal osmotic pressure so that the water doesn’t leave the plant cell.”

After finishing her thesis in 1977, Dehesh went back to Tehran to visit family for a few months. She had planned to write up her paper on the plant compounds while in Iran, but never did because Sutcliffe was diagnosed with lung cancer and died while she was away.

I saw these beautiful succulent plants growing around the lake. It was amazing to me that these plants could grow in so much salt. I suddenly wanted to become a plant biologist.

She wanted to go to the U.S. for a postdoc, but in the meantime took a teaching job at National University in Tehran in the fall of 1977. Soon after, she received a letter stating that she and other women with a PhD or equivalent degree were required to do military service and were forbidden to leave the country.

Every day, she reported to a nearby military station for training from 6 AM until 2 PM and then taught classes at the university in the evening between 4 and 9. “Slowly, I saw the changing political face of the country,” she says. “There was unrest, and then the revolution started, and I stopped reporting for military duty.”

Out of Iran, on to Germany

In September 1980, Dehesh made her escape. After leaping the border gate and entering Turkey, she got on a bus that was headed for Istanbul. Because of the Turkish coup d’état that month, Turkish soldiers were guarding all public places, checking all the buses, and searching through everyone’s belongings, taking the money passengers carried on, including the small sum Dehesh had in her purse. Anticipating thievery, she had sewn extra money into her clothes. The bus journey from the border to Istanbul took three days, during which Dehesh did not buy food for fear the soldiers would see her money stash. She subsisted on just water.

Once in Istanbul, Dehesh flew to Germany—using the money she had hidden—and was invited to an in-person interview for a research fellowship at a biology institute in Giessen. But when she wouldn’t lie and say that she planned on going back to Iran after a year, the interviewer refused to give her the fellowship. “The interviewer kept saying to me, ‘You don’t understand. You need to tell me when you are going back to Iran. Otherwise, I cannot give you the funding,’” Dehesh recalls. She replied, “‘I don’t care if you don’t give me the money. I am not planning on going back.’”

“After a good cry, I went to Freiburg where I was registered at the Goethe Institute to learn German, and where I met with the head of the plant biology department, Hans Mohr.” Mohr arranged for Dehesh to work as a volunteer in Klaus Apel’s plant biology lab, where Dehesh says she worked 14 hours a day for three straight months.  

The hard work paid off. Dehesh generated enough data for a paper that was eventually published in 1983. In that paper, she reported the role of proteases during photomorphogenesis, the response of plant growth to light. She confirmed prior studies’ evidence that proteases are important for organelles called etioplasts, which convert to chloroplasts upon light exposure, to function. After her volunteer stint, Dehesh was offered 50 percent of a postdoctoral salary in 1983, a so-called “habilitation position,” which is an educational training requirement for obtaining a professor position in many German-speaking countries.  

The same year, Apel’s lab moved to Kiel, Germany, a conservative city where no one would rent Dehesh an apartment because she was a single woman and a foreigner. “For three weeks, I slept in Apel’s office. The first morning, the cleaning staff found me sleeping there and panicked. It was so terrible.” Finally, a professor in the department rented his empty apartment to her.

Stress responses

To learn molecular biology, Dehesh took a yearlong sabbatical in 1986 in Peter Quail’s botany lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. When she asked to stay on longer, not having achieved her scientific goals, Apel refused, so Dehesh resigned from the German lab and became a postdoc in Quail’s lab. “I was a bit stubborn and wanted to do things my way, and also realized there was a glass ceiling for me in Germany. I didn’t want to be seen as a woman and a foreigner, I wanted to be a scientist,” she says.

In 1987, Quail’s lab moved to the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1990, Dehesh reported in Science that GT2 is a transcription factor that binds to the promoter of phytochrome A, a plant photoreceptor. She revealed that GT2  has a dual DNA-binding and nuclear-localization signal and functions to support maximal expression of phytochrome A, uncovering a new way plants regulate light-induced growth.

In November 1993, Dehesh and Quail, who had married in 1991, welcomed their son. Wanting to start her own independent line of research, in January 1994, Dehesh took a position at Calgene, a Davis, California–based biotechnology company, where she ran the lipid biochemistry program.

Monsanto acquired Calgene in 1997, and in 2002, Dehesh quit her program leadership position, a reaction to the new company’s policies, which she considered to veer too much into business at the expense of quality science. That year, she established her first academic lab at UC Davis, starting from scratch on a new topic: stress-response pathways in plants. She homed in on plant lipid-signaling pathways in general, and specifically, on oxylipins. In 2008, her lab identified several volatile plant compounds that function in plant defense responses.

Her lab then focused on identifying the nature and mechanism of action of stress-specific retrograde signals from organelles to the nucleus. These signals have a central and evolutionarily conserved role in organismal integrity and adaptation to environmental conditions. Dehesh focused on the dynamics of perception and transduction of these signals and how they culminate in inter-organelle cooperation. Her lab found that one particular signaling metabolite, methylerythritol cyclodiphosphate (MEcPP), also present in eubacteria and malaria, senses and communicates environmental perturbations, and ultimately alters gene expression to enable the organism to cope with a range of different environmental stresses. Because MEcPP is common between eubacteria and malaria, Dehesh continues to use plants as a surrogate to understand the signaling networks shared among these organisms.

Reaching out to girls

Dehesh moved her lab to the University of California, Riverside (UCR), in 2016, attracted by the opportunity to lead the university’s genomics institute. Her research goal now is to identify evolutionarily conserved pathways and metabolites common to a group of parasites called apicomplexa, eubacteria, and plants, but not found in mammals, and to use plants as a platform for drug discovery. Her lab is collaborating with the National Institutes of Health to screen compounds as potential antibiotics and antimalarial drugs.

Dehesh also made the move to Riverside to stretch her influence beyond the lab. As director of UCR’s Institute for Integrative Genome Biology, Dehesh plans to start a program to train local students in metabolomics, for which a new facility is being constructed. Dehesh wants to give high school students who may not be inclined to attend university opportunities to train in analytical chemistry and biology techniques. “Metabolomics will be a major approach in the future, and we need individuals to run these machines and do the data analysis.”

Her long-term goal is to help women and girls around the world through education initiatives. “I want to stretch my arms to all of the girls across the globe and tell them that being a woman is a pride, not a shame, and that they are capable of achieving what they dream of, and that they just need to believe in themselves. That is my final act in the theater of life. When I achieve that I am good!” 

Greatest Hits

  • Demonstrated that plants accumulate compounds, such as quaternary ammonium, for intracellular osmotic potential adjustment and retaining high turgor pressure in high-salt environments
  • Identified GT2 as a novel transcription factor that supports maximal expression of phytochrome A
  • At Calgene, produced medium chain fatty acids in transgenic plants
  • Characterized lipid-derived volatile compounds emitted by plants as a defense mechanism against certain sucking insects such as aphids
  • Identified key stress-specific retrograde-signaling molecules used by plastids to regulate selected nuclear stress-response genes in plants

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