A Q&A with Peter Tiffin

August 27, 2018

New head of the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology shares his perspective on PMB’s past, present and future.

Peter Tiffin

Longtime faculty member Peter Tiffin recently stepped into a new role as department head for Plant and Microbial Biology. Tiffin studies population genetics with a particular eye to understanding the impact changes in the environment or biological interactions have on the evolution of plants. We asked him about his thoughts on the department and the opportunities he sees in the future.

What attracted you to the role of department head?
For more than 20 years most of my job has been focused on research and teaching, both of which I find to be both challenging and rewarding. At the same I was interested in something new. When our previous department head, Dr. Gary Muehlbauer, who has done a great job for the past six or seven years, announced that he was stepping down this seemed like an opportunity. It helps that our department has excellent faculty, we get along well, and that I am excited by the direction the department has been moving.

You are a longtime faculty member. How have things evolved in during your time with PMB?
Of course the faculty and the research in which we are engaged have changed, but these are always changing. From a department-centric perspective, the most significant change is that until last year we were a Department of Plant Biology, we are now a Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. This change is not in name only. The change has been accompanied by substantive change in the size, scope, and culture of the department.

More generally, since when I started at Minnesota, there is now greater value placed on undergraduate education. Without going into the reasons for the change, of which there are many, the effect has been that providing valuable experiences for undergraduate students and effective teaching are now given more respect — it’s been a good change.

Another change is the increased challenge faculty face in obtaining funding from federal agencies. Federal investment in university-led science is central to training the next generation of scientists, making new discoveries, developing new technologies, providing the knowledge needed for environmental protection, and for economic development. As federal funding has become less available, a lot more time is spent trying to obtain funding to maintain our research and train future scientists.

What opportunities do you see for the department going forward?
We’ve had more than a half-dozen faculty join the Department in the last couple of years.  These new faculty bring energy, perspectives, and skills that will open up opportunities and bring new perspectives that affect our more senior faculty. Of course, these faculty are joining a successful group who have valuable knowledge and experience. It will be exciting to see the collaborations that develop and how the research and educational traditions of the department develop.

A second opportunity is in the area of undergraduate education. PMB faculty are active in teaching many of the core courses taken by students from across the college. At the same time, we have had relatively few students majoring in Plant Biology. I think the expansion of the Department to include Microbiology, and the expansion of the undergraduate major from plant biology to plant and microbial biology will not only attract more students to the major, but also enrich the educational opportunities we can offer the students.

What do you want the University community to know about PMB?
Our faculty and students are productive researchers investigating important questions in genetics, genomics, cell biology, molecular biology, physiology, ecology, evolution, and biodiversity. We also contribute significantly to the education of undergraduate and graduate students by providing students with research experiences, mentoring student researchers, and teaching classes. The classes we teach are not only about plants and microbes, which are important, but cover the range of disciplines that form the core foundational knowledge of all biologists.