Funmilayo Adebesin grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, the largest metropolitan area on the African continent. She tracks her early love of science to her father’s work as a pharmacist and to television shows that showed research in action. She came to the United States for undergraduate study at Abilene Christian University, following her older brother who was already there through a study abroad organization with links to the Texas institution. Her most difficult cultural adjustment was to American food, she recalls: “The entire diet is really different; food in Nigeria is much spicier.” Like her brother, Adebesin chose to pursue a PhD in biochemistry after graduating in 2011. Her undergraduate academic advisor, a Purdue alumnus, suggested she consider Purdue’s program. “When I visited, I liked that the department was small and the professors actually cared about what you wanted to do,” she says. She now feels at home in the lab of her advisor, Distinguished Professor Natalia Dudareva: “She is well-known and does excellent research. Most of my family are in Nigeria, and she has become more like a parent-mentor.”
Adebesin’s research focuses on volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which plants synthesize for reproduction and defense. Released from the leaves and roots, these chemicals, which are responsible for scent, help attract pollinators and repel pathogens, and account for much of the flavor in most fruits and vegetables, she notes. They also are used in products for humans, such as cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. The research can help drive metabolic engineering to produce a desired characteristic in a plant.
Adebesin was part of Dudareva’s international team of scientists that disseminated new research this summer showing plant volatile compounds move to the outside of the cells to perform their functions. Contrary to earlier thinking that the VOCs passively diffuse out of cells, the team demonstrated the contribution of active transport across the plasma membrane through the identification of an adenosine triphosphate–binding cassette (ABC transporter). The team’s new insights into the biological mechanisms behind emission of VOCs were published in the journal Science.
Adebesin will graduate this month and remain in Dudareva’s lab in a postdoctoral position, which she says is important to further improving her skills as a researcher. “At Purdue we have access to some of the best research facilities and equipment,” she explains. Her professional goal is to work in industry or for a government agency both in her home country and in the United States. In her spare time, Adebesin enjoys watching movies and TV shows, especially Game of Thrones.