Jewish Xylem and Academic Phloem: My Life as a Plant Physiologist

By Lauren Spitz

After living my entire life in or around Philadelphia (and college in upstate New York), I got accepted to graduate school at UC Santa Cruz. I was excited to relive the epic tale of the forefathers of this country, “Go west!” I had no idea that California was going to be so different from Philadelphia. It’s the same country. We eat the same food and drive the same cars. We’re all Americans, right?! Yet I had no idea how far apart the east and west coasts of this country actually were until I drove the entire length last September.

Luckily I did some research before the big move and knew there was a local Chabad house associated with the university. I arrived to town just in time for Yom Kippur services and had my first Californian Jewish experience praying and fasting all day with a whole congregation of people I didn’t know. Still, the holiday was meaningful, as the High Holidays always are, and as soon as the first Shabbos came around, I made my way to the rabbi’s house for Friday Night Live Shabbat dinner. I introduced myself to the first girl I saw and found out that it was her first time at this Shabbos dinner also. I made my first friend in California! I soon found out that the rabbi and rabbitzen were from Brooklyn, NY… fellow east-coasters! The familiar New York accent and attitude was music to my ears after being inundated with Californian coolness upon my arrival.

Megan Susman

I have spent nearly every Shabbos since September with my first Californian friend, the Chabad rabbi, rabbitzen, and their children. The warm and welcoming family atmosphere has provided me with endless comfort and reassurance. I miss my family and friends from home so much, but I look forward to the home-cooked meal, spiritual renewal, and family atmosphere every week at the UCSC Chabad Student Center. It has given me the platform with which to live the rest of my life, which, these days, consists of one main thing: plants!

I am currently a first year graduate student working on plant eco-physiology. I am particularly interested in studying the effects of edaphic (soil) constraints and nutrient deficiencies on plant physiology and vegetative community assemblies. I plan to use pygmy redwood trees found here on campus as well as a pygmy conifer forest in Mendocino County as my study system to explore how extreme nutrient deficiency can affect plant growth, photosynthesis, transpiration, and community ecology.

For a quick review of plant physiology, xylem and phloem are the transporters of water and nutrients in vascular plants. Xylem conduits are typically large, strong tube-like structures that transport water from the roots up to the leaves and oftentimes function to provide support to the plant. Phloem is typically composed of more numerous, smaller tubes that carry nutrients. Phloem relies on water from the xylem to load and unload these nutrients, and therefore is always found right next to the xylem. Plant survival is dependent upon reliable sources of both water and nutrients.

In this respect, Judaism is like my xylem and graduate school is my phloem. Religion has provided me with the structural support and essential hydration necessary to learn and grow in other areas of life, just as xylem provides water for plants so that they may grow and carry out other processes too. Graduate school provides me with the food and nutrients for my mind, just as phloem provides nutrients in plants. The foundation of my academic life is rooted in and reliant upon my spirituality, just as phloem is dependent upon xylem in plants.

To make the whole plant function properly, it needs both nutrients and water. In the same way, Judaism, as my xylem, is enhanced by my academic phloem as well. An essential part of Judaism is tikkun olam, to do your part to make the world a better place. I believe that my purpose is to study plant ecology and by pursuing this academic endeavor, by focusing on the phloem in my life, I am enhancing my connection to my Jewish xylem and increasing my overall performance. If I can learn something new about plants and share this knowledge, then perhaps I can contribute to a better understanding of this beautifully complex world that He created.

Published on page 58 of the Spring 2011 issue of Leviathan.

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