"Lab Family" Provides Valuable Undergraduate Research Experience

by Laura Hock

If, four years ago, someone had told me that I would be spending this summer working full-time in a molecular genetics lab, I would have laughed in his face. I thought I was going to major in music… But, here I am today, studying ferric reductase activity in several mutants and ecotypes of Arabidopsis thaliana and Cucumis sativus!

"After just my first semester (in Horticulture), I was surprised when a professor encouraged me to look into part-time research work."

My journey began when I decided to major in Horticulture. After just my first semester, I was surprised when a professor encouraged me to look into part-time research work. With the help of my advisor, Anne Streich, I was able to get a position working in the lab of Dr. Brian Waters. Shortly thereafter, I applied for UCARE, a program that encourages undergrads to get experience doing research in their field of interest. Currently, I'm working full-time over the summer between my two years of UCARE.

I began my laboratory experience working with post-doc Ricardo Stein. He helped me learn the basic skills that I still use today; how to hydroponically grow the plants we work with, how to clean glassware and other materials properly in order to minimize contamination, and how to use the intimidating new lab equipment. After proving my proficiency and dependability, I was introduced to more complicated procedures.

In little more than a year’s time, I can now carry out every procedure from seed to measurement—an extremely rewarding accomplishment. More gratifying than anything else, however, is seeing the results from my work contribute to a publishable paper.

Our research measures the effects of varying concentrations of iron and copper solutions on mineral content and ferric reductase activity. (Ferric reductase is an enzyme present in roots that is able to convert Fe III to Fe II.) We seek to determine the molecular pathways of these two metals in the plant and uncover the genes that are involved at each step.

"In little more than a year’s time, I can now carry out every procedure from seed to measurement – an extremely rewarding accomplishment."

An important skill I learned in doing research, especially in the biological sciences, is that consistency will save you both time and materials. Being able to conduct each repetition of an experiment exactly the same way (unless, of course, it is not working and the procedures must be changed!) gives confidence that any variance in data is a result of the biological system’s nature and not human error. Between the indispensable lab notebook and keeping consistent practices, you always know exactly what you did. I must be doing something right, as Dr. Waters often refers to me as “the machine” because of my ability to do the same thing over and over efficiently and with almost no error.

Up to this point, I have been working more on the macroscopic level, but Dr. Waters is currently teaching me to isolate RNA in order to measure gene expression. The results from these (somewhat complicated) procedures will answer many of the questions that previous results cannot. We need both kinds of data to see the entire picture. As a result of helping with research like this, I believe I have learned just as much about plants from working in the lab as I have in the classroom.

The atmosphere in our lab is not one of competition. We help each other with experiments and would never consider sabotaging a coworker’s research. If something damages one member’s data, the entire lab is affected; just as one member’s success boosts the success of the lab, one member’s failure increases the chances of the failure of the lab.

Through my shared experiences with them, I’ve become friends with all of my coworkers—many of them from diverse cultures. In only a year, I have had the privilege of knowing a grad student from China, a post-doc from Brazil and a Ph.D. student from India. Even the rest of us Americans in the lab come from very different backgrounds!

At the head of this lab, of course, is Dr. Waters. He does not consider himself our “boss,” but rather he positions himself as our supervisor, our mentor, our leader. He calls us the “lab family,” and we have become just that—a family.

Laura Hock at work in Dr. Brian Waters' lab.