Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Why Plants?

The combination of the first class topic of Why Study Plants in Plant Molecular Biology and two hashtags (#IAmAScientistBecause and #IAmABotanist) on Twitter yesterday has made me reflective and contemplative. This post is longer than usual, so I hid it behind the cut.

I was not always a plant person. When I was little, 8, I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist. We lived in landlocked Dallas, Texas at the time, but my Mom got me a set of The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau. I read them until they fell apart. I was convinced I would work with whales and figure out their language. Then I started SCUBA diving at 15 and became obsessed with nudibranchs. They are colorful, mysterious and amazing. I knew there had to be some incredibly discoveries to make with these tiny flatworms. I was still clearly an animal person, while I thought kelp was cool too, I was more interested in the beautiful and strange critters.
A nudibranch, aka sea slug, from Australia.
Personal picture from '01
It wasn't until I went abroad to Australia in 2001 that I started to become interested in plants, well algae. I took a field course and was assigned to a zooxanthellae project. I was completely fascinated by the symbiosis between the algae and the coral. I must admit, my first pull towards this project was the coral. In our project we were comparing changes in zooxanthellae density during bleaching with coral morphology type and zooxanthellae diversity. By the end of the project, I wanted to know why different types of algae responded differently.
poor little bleaching corals
When I returned to my home college, I took a Plant Systematic course which would complete my descent into becoming a plant loving nutcase. This course was fantastic, the instructor is still a friend of mine, and we spent every lab period hiking around learning how to identify and classify the local flora. I loved this course so much, I TA'd it the next year. During my year as a student, I spent a lot of time talking to my TA and she was telling me about the research she was doing for her department honors with invasive wildflowers. I badgered this poor girl with question after question, completely fascinated. After a while, she finally told me to talk to the instructor and do my own honors project. Which I did. My research involved both a field component and lab portions. In the lab, I looked at the length of winter required for flowering or germination for Dame's Rocket and Garlic Mustard, respectively. We obtained some really fascinating results, maybe one day we'll get around to publishing them.
Field portion, the purple flowers are Dame's Rocket;
little white ones are Garlic Mustard, my "favorite" invasive
When looking for grad schools, I happened to mention my Australia experience with zooxanthellae to one of the chem profs. She told me she knew someone at her old alma mater doing just that and hooked me up with my masters advisor. He taught me all about the amazing properties of photosynthesis, specifically photosystem II and its role in coral bleaching. While I did get to do some field work, a lot of my research was done in the lab (but those pictures are not as impressive so oo and ah at my underwater one instead ;)). I knew about photosynthesis from a baby bio standpoint, but the level at which we dove (get it, huh, huh;)) into photosystem II blew my mind. I was literally measure the speed at which a single electron passes between the quinones. A single electron! Photosynthesis is truly incredible. 
Field portion, measuring photosynthesis
Now for my PhD, as we all know, I am studying soybean and why it does not like the cold. My masters degree was looking at heat stress and using photosynthesis to measure the changes. The PhD is looking at cold stress and using more molecular techniques to look at gene expression and regulation. The project is fascinating to me and I feel it really rounds out my experience in plant biology. When I finish the PhD, I will have looked at germination and flowering requirements, photosynthesis, abiotic stresses, and gene expression in a variety of plant systems. I truly am a botanist!

Can't wait to see what postdoc brings! 

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