Genetics scientist highlighted as Focus on Faculty: CJ Tsai, the Winfred N. Haynes Professor in Forest Biotechnology and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, helps her students gain the confidence that they can work outside of their comfort zone and become independent learners while embracing future challenges.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA? I earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in forestry from Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan, and my Ph.D. degree in forest science from Michigan Technological University. I am the Winfred N. Haynes Professor in Forest Biotechnology and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, with a joint appointment in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and the department of genetics in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. I am currently director of The Plant Center at UGA. I am also a member of the Institute of Bioinformatics and the Bioenergy Systems Research Institute.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here? I moved my research group to UGA in 2008 after being a faculty member at Michigan Technological University for 11 years. I was attracted to Georgia by the Georgia Research Alliance program, the generous endowment of the Haynes family to forest biotechnology, the dual appointment across two colleges for basic and applied research, and the vibrant plant sciences community.
What are your favorite courses and why? That has to be my class! I teach a graduate-level functional genomics class (FANR/GENE/BINF 8140) that is cross-listed in several programs. Students learn various facets of genomics and bioinformatics through a combination of lectures, discussions of the scientific literature and homework assignments. These are then folded into term paper projects, along with literature synthesis, to address real-world problems in their research areas. It is a fun class—there are always questions or software issues that are unpredictable and need addressing, and each year is a different challenge. The class presentations at the end are always the best—watching students speak comfortably in genomic jargon and finishing the course with confidence in their ability to grasp, analyze or interpret genomic data. Because my students come from a wide range of disciplines, I learn from their projects as well.
What interests you about your field? I am absolutely biased as I think trees are the most complex and amazing organisms on Earth. They are sessile yet resilient, and their longevity means that they can be unwavering while also highly adaptable to a changing environment. Our everyday life depends on trees, from the wood, paper, energy, fruits, nuts and pharmaceuticals that they produce, to the less tangible carbon sequestration and ecological services that they provide. However, tree biology in general is under-investigated. Knowing that our research helps advance the field of tree molecular genetics has been my driving force.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA? I was elected a Fellow of the International Wood Science Academy in 2013. I became director of The Plant Center in July 2014. In this capacity, I have the pleasure of working with a group of highly dynamic and collegial faculty, graduate students, postdoctoral associates and research staff who share a common interest in plant research. We come together twice a year, via a spring symposium and a fall retreat, to learn about the latest scientific advances from high-profile external speakers and to share our research findings. Those meetings offer wonderful networking opportunities for plant researchers scattered across campus. The Plant Center has enriched my own research program tremendously, and I hope to further its impact on campus and beyond.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa? My teaching has certainly co-evolved with my research over the years, as we embraced various genomics technologies in our research. Students get to learn not only the principles and applications of the various omics, but also the real-world challenges that we experienced firsthand. I make use of our research results to design homework exercises for students to gain hands-on experience with omics data. Teaching keeps me on my toes with the rapidly evolving field of genomics and compels me to read broadly outside of my own research areas. It has indeed inspired new ideas for our research, and then the cycle repeats.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you? I hope they gain the confidence that they can work outside of their comfort zone and become independent learners while embracing future challenges.
Describe your ideal student. My ideal student is a problem solver and a treasure hunter, who thinks critically and creatively, and is driven by possibilities—whatever the treasure is.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is… Walking between Life Sciences, Warnell and the Georgia Center, or through the D.W. Brooks Mall, and seeing the seasonal changes of the trees along the walkways.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to… My husband and I have been doing hot yoga, which helps not only to ease my back pain from scoliosis, but also to take my mind away from the busy work. We also enjoy traveling and visiting my family in Taiwan.
Favorite movie (and why)? I am a multitasker when it comes to watching TV or movies, so I am pretty bad at concentrating on movie watching. But I can watch three to four movies in a row during international long-haul flights. Problem is, I don’t remember much afterward …
Proudest moment at UGA? Hearing from former students, postdocs and associates about their career advancement or life adventure..