FACULTY IN FOCUS
The ‘Accidental’ Plant Biologist Making Waves in Desert Agriculture.
Professor Ikram Blilou spent the first half of her life in her native Morocco, then, prior to her move to KAUST, she spent her time evenly between Spain and the Netherlands. She feels her dual-cultural upbringing has given her an uncommon, balanced perspective that gives her “a lot of power” when it comes to engaging with people from different backgrounds. She has the “advantage of understanding Arabic [and] Muslim culture, and also Western [and] European culture,” which she’s used as a force of progress throughout her life.
Blilou’s parents are Muslim, and they brought their children up according to the true values of Islam by encouraging open-mindedness, kindness, and exploration. “That has been the main drive to find the balance between different cultures,” she says, adding her belief that “KAUST is a good representation,” where scientists and people of all backgrounds and cultures “come together in the name of discovery while speaking one language: science.”
For many scientists, their backstory is one of life-long fascination, but Blilou makes no secret of the fact that this was not the case for her. She came to plant science later in life, after her plans to become a physician came to a crashing halt when she was required to dissect a mouse as part of her biology studies. Completely traumatized, she immediately threw away her box of tweezers and scalpels and made the move to the less-harrowing field of plant biology. “I kill a lot of plants,” she jokes; “they might complain, but we don’t hear them.”
The move to plant biology may have been unplanned, but for Blilou, a genuine fascination with plants developed almost immediately, in particular with their roots. It’s easy to overlook the role that roots play in plant biology but understanding their function in the greatest possible detail has now become Blilou’s life’s work. “If you see a lion, you’re going to run,” she says, to illustrate the fact that in response to a threat a plant can’t go anywhere, they are literally rooted to the spot and hence they have developed strategies to cope with their changing environment. She likens a plant’s roots to sensors that explore the soil, detecting factors like pathogens, heat, drought and salinity. Based on the conditions they are confronted with, the roots adapt their structure over time so that they can best serve the rest of the plant.
Understanding how these plants develop such resilience is key to unlocking solutions to the global challenges of water scarcity and agricultural land use. Blilou’s contribution to this effort is made through her work with KAUST’s Center for Desert Agriculture (CDA), where she finds unity with colleagues and students from a multitude of disciplines in pursuit of innovation, together. “There is a very good synergy between the CDA faculty,” she assures with pride, “with the common goal to make Saudi Arabia the place for innovation and economic impact, through establishing modern and sustainable agriculture both locally and globally.”
Fittingly, when it comes to passing her goals on to her students, Blilou regards them with the same care and affection that is required by the objects of her research. “A student is like a seed,” she says; “you plant it, nurture it, you give it as much attention as needed and at the end it will start flourishing and give you flowers.” Not having children of her own, Blilou goes further to say, “they’re like [her] kids,” and it’s evident from how she speaks of them that she’s invested wholeheartedly in their success.
The pursuit of awards or accolades is not high on Blilou’s agenda; “we should not look at it that way,” she suggests; “we are very good, and well recognized globally, we don’t need to seek attention.” However, she is definitely encouraged by the response to her work from the wider scientific community. “One way that I’m starting to perceive that KAUST is becoming very visible worldwide is by the invitations I’m getting as a keynote speaker at conferences.” Blilou’s humility is clear; she means this not as a point of personal pride, but of pride in the prominence KAUST has gained in the global conversation.
Blilou attributes this growing interest in KAUST to its promotion of interdisciplinary collaboration, which she values very highly. She’s currently working with another Faculty in Focus participant, Professor Khaled Salama, to develop sensors that can detect pathogens in plants. “I wouldn’t have thought about this,” she admits, “if it hadn’t been for this collaboration.” Being surrounded by colleagues from different backgrounds who are eager to collaborate allows Blilou to flourish in a very meaningful way, which allows her to nurture her students in kind. “It’s very nice,” she concludes with a smile, “very complimentary.”