When many of us look at a plant, we see a collection of stems and leaves. If it’s flowering, we might notice the shape or the color of its blossoms. When Liang Song looks at plants, she sees millions of years of evolution. And she marvels at all the adaptations that particular plant has had to make through evolutionary history to be growing where she has found it, on a hike or while traveling in a foreign land.

Song, who grew up in China, has always been fascinated by flora. As a young child one of her favorite games was collecting different flowers and presenting them on a plate, like a chef with a signature dish. Later, as an undergraduate, she studied ecology. While surveying the spread of Solidago canadensis, an invasive plant from North America, Song was introduced to some techniques from molecular biology. Always interested in learning novel approaches to address fundamental scientific questions in a new way, she decided to get her PhD in that field.

Today, as a research associate in Joseph Ecker’s lab, Song studies the crosstalk of plant hormones (“phytohormones”) in the weed Arabidopsis thaliana. Specifically, she employs high- throughput sequencing to examine the myriad transcripts, or protein- making instructions, produced when the phytohormone abscisic acid (ABA) begins cascades of chemical chatter in response to an environmental stressor, such as drought.

In a recent study published in Science, Song tracked real-time changes in genetic activity in Arabidopsis’ response to ABA, and found that, in the face of environmental hardship, plants employ a small group of proteins that act as conductors to manage their complex responses to stress. She discovered new stress-response genes via snapshots of key proteins binding to DNA throughout the genome. The results may help in developing new agricultural technologies to optimize water use in plants so that they can better adapt to drought and other climate-related stressors.

Snapshots, as it happens, are another passion of Song ’s. In her spare time she is an avid photographer who particularly enjoys capturing images of flora she encounters when she travels. Every time she goes to a new place, she tries to understand the local plants through photography. One of the most memorable of late was a columbine (pictured above) she came across while hiking in Utah’s Bryce Canyon. Amid a tumble of rocks in the arid landscape was a “cute little flower with tiny leaves.”

While taking the shot, Song thought about how the smallness of the leaves helps the plant conserve water. She was impressed by the delicacy of the columbine’s stem, which somehow managed to support a giant bloom, an act of defiance in the harsh terrain. For Song, photography and plant biology, travel and science—all are ways to better understand the world— and her place in it.

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