Seed Biology Program Gives Undergrads a Boost

Learning the secrets of seed germination is helping an OSU student grow her own career as a physician. Jing Sun, a junior in microbiology from Corvallis, Oregon, has wanted to become a doctor ever since a childhood bout with hepatitis A put her in the hospital. “That made a big impression on me, mostly on how much I didn’t want to be in the hospital, but also on how grateful I was to the doctors who helped me get better,” she says.

So Jing, 21, decided to use that experience as motivation to study medicine and become a pediatrician. In her first year at OSU, she wanted to learn to diagnose and solve problems, and she jumped at a chance to learn those skills in a research laboratory. “It was the first lab I found that was looking for a freshman to do real research. Dr. Nonogaki was specifically looking for someone to take on their own projects, which was pretty unique and very exciting,” she explains.

As she learned laboratory techniques, Jing found that she was not alone. Other undergrads were doing research in her area, the Integrative Seed Biology Program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Established by Associate Professor Hiro Nonogaki in the Department of Horticulture, the program offers undergraduates a chance to gain research skills while they discover how seed genes function.

“I think it is good for undergraduate students to do this research,” Nonogaki says, “and to present their findings at conferences. It is important for them to be exposed to real scientific research and to experts in the field. This is part of learning and helps students to be successful.”

Working with Nonogaki, post-doctoral researchers and graduate students, undergrads in the lab explore the genes that control germination in seeds. They are focusing on Arabidopsis (a weed that is an important model system for plant biology) and tomato. Such knowledge can illuminate the fundamental processes that guide embryo growth and development and lead to practical applications for the global seed industry.

In her research, Jing begins by identifying seeds that show a mutation in a gene known as a transcription factor. These genes operate somewhat like light switches, turning other genes on and off. After finding seeds with transcription factor mutations, Jing allows the seeds to sprout, observes the growing plants and documents the results. She then compares the plants to those grown from seeds with normal germination patterns. Her goal is to identify the molecular mechanisms at work and the consequences of the mutation.

With the smile of a proud teacher, Nonogaki points out that Jing has accomplished more than her research results. In 2005, she received a research grant through the Ernest and Pauline Jaworski Scholarship for Underserved Undergraduates in Plant Science. She also received an award for her presentation in OSU’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute summer research program.

In 2006, Jing was selected to study at the University of Freiburg in Germany through RISE (Research Internships for Science and Engineering). The German Academic Exchange Service created the program to bring Canadian and American undergraduates to Germany to study with Ph.D. students.

Ultimately, Jing believes her lab work will set her apart from other candidates in the competitive medical school application process. She is keeping her fingers crossed. This summer, she has been invited to participate in the Summer Undergraduate Program in Population, Health and Aging at Western Washington University, where she will also work in the Demographic Research Laboratory.

Regardless of what the future may hold, Nonogaki is pleased with the work that his undergraduate researchers are doing. “We have a deal, I teach them how to work in the lab, and they teach me American slang. It’s how I learn a lot of new words,” he laughs.