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Encouraging the Next Generation of Scientists

Posted by steven.reynolds | August 27, 2012

Eighteen-year-old Sequoia Leuba was already a seasoned researcher when she came to work this summer in the lab of WSU horticultural genomicist Amit Dhingra. In ninth grade, while her peers were just starting to classify the unseen world of microbes, Leuba was conducting research at a University of Pittsburgh microbiology lab.

At 14, she discovered and characterized a new virus—called a mycobacteriophage, or phage for short—that infects certain bacteria, some of which can cause serious diseases. She sequenced and annotated the virus a year later. She called her phage Fang. Her work was published in 2011 with other researchers who also described new phage genomes in the peer-reviewed scientific and medical research journal PLoS One.

Sequoia Leuba
Sequoia Leuba (left) explaining her research at the recent Undergraduate Research Symposium.

And she just finished her freshman year at Yale. How was Dhingra going to keep a mind like Leuba’s engaged? By having her work on not one, but three research projects in three months.

“As a mentor, she was a challenge because she had so much experience. It’s amazing how wonderful these students are,” Dhingra said during the Summer 2012 WSU Undergraduate Research Poster Symposium on August 3.

There, Leuba presented the findings of one research project: genetic testing of three new sweet cherry varieties from an East Wenatchee tree fruit nursery to determine their ability to cross-pollinate with each other. Knowing whether one variety can be crossed with another is necessary for growers to maximize their yield and for breeders to test or modify fruit characteristics.

Leuba joined more than 50 outstanding students from over 30 universities who spent their summer at WSU conducting research and attending workshops in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, culminating in the poster symposium. They worked with more than 40 WSU faculty members from May through July on everything from air quality to biofuel emissions and from nanoporous materials to respiratory disease pathogens.

Several projects were supported by the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, which offers research opportunities for undergraduate students each summer at host universities around the country, including WSU.

Leuba came to Pullman because she wanted a research experience that was completely different from her previous background in microbiology, she said. And she got it in Dhingra’s lab.

“This has been very valuable because of the diversity of the people I’ve met and the diversity of the experiences I’ve had here,” she said. “I still learned new things because this is plant-based. I’d be open to coming back and working with plants again. There’s a lot of science out there to explore.”

Experiment and find your own way’

Undergrad researcher Brittany LeGrant in front of the poster summarizing her reserch project and its results.
Undergrad researcher Brittany LeGrant in front of the poster summarizing her reserch project and its results.

Dhingra is the principal investigator on an REU grant funding the participation of eight students in plant genomics and biotechnology research. For the past three summers, he’s gone to Fort Valley State University, a historically black university in Fort Valley, Georgia, to train more than 25 undergraduates from different parts of the country in research protocols and to recruit them to work in his WSU genomics lab.

“WSU has done a wonderful job of coordinating this in a community fashion,” Dhingra said. “Creating a community of researchers feeds into the future. This is one of the first REU programs in the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences.”

Two undergraduates working with Dhingra this summer came from FVSU: Brittany LeGrant and Jasmine Scott.

LeGrant worked on developing an optimal environment for growing Chardonnay and Pixie grape varieties in tissue culture. The goal was to test a model system for possible use by commercial growers, Dhingra said. But a roadblock during her research led indirectly to another goal: to develop a sterilization protocol for reducing contamination of the plant materials LeGrant obtained from the greenhouse.

“When you get something from the greenhouse, you can bring in fungal infections,” he said. “She had to find a sterilization method, and she came up with a creative solution.”

LeGrant learned that the tiny hairs on Pixie leaves tend to trap fungus, making it harder to get rid of. Dhingra’s lab had a sonic cleaner, which agitates particles with mild ultrasound energy. She used the sonic cleaner with a bleach solution to loosen fungal spores from the leaves, making them more vulnerable to the bleach. The combination limited fungal contamination to just 17 percent of her samples. Using bleach alone resulted in 59 percent contamination.

“I think that’s the process of discovery—and the joy of science,” Dhingra said. “It’s a simple thing, but very encouraging for a new scientist. She has it in her to find a solution, and she’s seen she can do it. That approach helps in life too. Experiment and find your own way.”

“I kept working with the protocol until I found the answer,” LeGrant said. “If things fail, you have to have a backup plan. That’s what the project taught me, to try different things.”

Time travel with apples

Jasmine Scott talking with a fellow student about her research project.
Jasmine Scott talking with a fellow student about her research project.

Fellow FVSU student Scott not only worked with Dhingra but also with apple breeder Kate Evans of WSU’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee to speed up the process of apple breeding. It takes about 25 years for a new apple variety to be produced and sent to market presently.

The challenge is an apple tree’s lengthy juvenile stage, which delays flowering time. A young apple tree won’t flower for three to seven years. No flowers, no fruit. Only when the tree produces fruit can breeders then evaluate the characteristics of a particular variety to see if it’s worth being grown commercially.

Scott worked with Dhingra and Evans to create an intermediary cross that flowers more quickly—and whose fruit can be evaluated much earlier. A single gene for early flowering was inserted into Royal Gala plant material and the new plant grown in tissue culture. From this plant, more crosses can be done to bring in other desirable characteristics, such as disease resistance and novel fruit qualities, Dhingra said.

“This system can speed up generation time and eventually produce a non-genetically modified product,” he added.

For Scott, the project opened up a world of possibilities in which growers can have access to apple varieties sooner and researchers can coax more and better traits from them. Her favorite part of the project was the hands-on work of preparing the plants and watching them grow.

“I watched over them like a baby,” said Scott, who fittingly plans to be a neonatologist. “This is history being made. Participating in plant science has helped broaden my horizons, and I love to learn, so I’m able to see different parts of science here.”

Steep learning curve

It is not an easy proposition for undergraduate students doing intensive research in one summer, Evans said. They don’t have the benefit of a class schedule to follow, so they have to learn to organize their time and structure their activities—all while delving into many unknowns.

“It’s really very new for a lot of these students,” she said. “That self-motivation is the key for many different disciplines. But then there’s the enthusiasm you get from students and the value they get from the research.”

The reward is in their new discoveries: what they learn in the lab and about themselves in the process, under the guidance of mentors who will help, but not take over, Scott said.

“Overall, everyone helped us in the lab, showed us what to do and not to do and how to work with the lab equipment,” she said. “I had a lot of questions about different tasks, like making media. When you’re trying to teach someone, you need to let them do it on their own. They were very gentle, very patient with me. They didn’t get frustrated. As a result, I can be gentle and patient with others.”

Nella Letizia