Summer biochemistry researchers probe stubborn mysteries of plant flowering © July 25, 2008, Norwich University Office of Communications

Quinn Conklin and Sean Paz, two Norwich University students, learn the precise, detail-oriented nature of laboratory work during summer fellowships.

photo by Jay Ericson Quinn Conklin [left] and Sean Paz, two Norwich University students, learn the precise, detail-oriented nature of laboratory work during summer fellowships.

Many long-standing unknowns of why plants flower have stumped scientists. A few Norwich University students under the guidance of Prof. Alison Fisher, however, are making significant gains in understanding one piece of the plant-flowering puzzle. Quinn Conklin and Sean Paz are spending their summer on the Northfield, Vt., campus of America’s oldest private military college doing real, original research, with the goal of a advancing scientific knowledge.

Conklin, a biology major, and Paz, a biochemistry major, are spending 10 weeks performing precise, complex experiments. They’re studying a gas called ethylene, long thought to inhibit plant flowering. Through their effort and previous students’ work, Conklin and Paz may prove that some ethylene is, in fact, necessary for flowering. They hope to publish their findings in a peer-review journal - a lofty accomplishment, especially for undergraduates.

You might have done this once in class. Here, you do it 100 times, and it’s really going to stick.

~ Quinn Conklin,
senior biology major

“This is a lot different than class,” said Paz. “(Dr. Fisher) always says you can’t fit a lab into three hours. I see that. Here, if it doesn’t go right, you try it again.”

That day, Conklin, clad in a white lab coat, and Paz, who was wearing rubber gloves, were examining squares of gel containing DNA copied from mRNA [“messenger” ribonucleic acid] they had extracted from plants and amplified many times. The gels had been put through a process in an electrophoresis apparatus to reproduce enough DNA copies to allow them to determine its presence. The students removed the samples and carefully carried them to another device, a sort of fancy camera to help them “see” the DNA. They pulled up images on a computer screen, and the results puzzled them, so they brought a printout of the images to Fisher. She nodded, telling them they were on the right track.

“It’s intriguing,” said Conklin, handling the lab machines and instruments with the familiarity of a a professional. “You might have done this once in class. Here, you do it 100 times, and it’s really going to stick.”

Conklin, who spent the summer of 2007 doing similar research, and Paz, who is in the summer program for the first time, are using two plants: Pharbitis [Japanese morning glory] and Arabidopsis thaliana [thale cress]. Pharbitis is easy to work with, Conklin said, because its flowering can be easily controlled. Arabidopsis thaliana provides a different set of conditions, because its flowering cannot be controlled as readily.

The students perform each step of the research, from growing the plants from seeds in a growth chamber to altering conditions and testing. Paz is testing how much ethylene plants give off, while Conklin is taking the research a step further, studying the expression of different genes required for flowering. She is doing this by inhibiting ethylene production by the plants, and then looking to see if the expression of flowering genes is altered in response to that action.

Research is not just for the sake of learning. The team is addressing unanswered questions. Days are often long and experiments don’t always go as planned. That is all part of a real, scientific process.

The relationship of ethylene and plant flowering is not something Fisher expected to study, she said. Her Ph.D. work focused on the emission of other gassy molecules in plants. So how did she come to be involved with studying ethylene?

“It all started with a student,” Fisher said. “She wanted to study flowering processes in plants. She started doing research at night on the Internet.”

That student sparked this research project five years ago. The more research students and Fisher do, the more questions they have, she said. Questions spark questions and lead to more experiments and research.

Conklin and Paz’s research is supported by Norwich University student research grants. Conklin is the recipient of a summer fellowship from the Weintz Research Scholars Program. Paz received a different fellowship from the Chase Endowment for Academic Excellence. The fellowships pay $4,000, and the school provides student housing for 10 weeks. The competitive grants require a thorough and thought-out application, and are one of the most generous research grants in all of the colleges and universities in the state, Fisher said.

Most of the funding comes from the Vermont Genetics Network, a University of Vermont-based consortium of five schools working to build biomedical research infrastructure.

“The grants have really energized our research program,” Fisher said. The science department used to be fairly quiet in the summer, she said, but with the grants as incentives, there is a real community of scientists at work.