As an undergraduate student in the University of Vermont's Department of Plant Biology, you will have the opportunity to assist faculty with current research as well as to design and implement your own research projects. Almost all Plant Biology students work in a department laboratory to gain experience in a chosen field. Professors take the time to teach undergraduate students laboratory procedures and techniques and to introduce them to the culture of scientific research. Many graduating students cite research as the most formative aspect of their education at UVM.
First, identify one or more Plant Biology research laboratories that interest you. Faculty lab groups are listed by research area here. Then email the faculty member(s) who run those labs to express your interest. You may also express general interest in research to your advisor, who can point you in the right direction. There are several mechanisms for undergraduate students to engage in research, including research for credit, Work Study, Volunteer, and Paid Positions.
My research in the Harris Lab entailed comparing the expression of genes involved in the production of reactive oxygen species between normal seedlings and mutant seedlings with a stunted root using qRT-PCR. I would grow seedlings on large petri plates for several days, cut off the roots, grind them in liquid nitrogen then extract the RNA and run them in the machine to compare the expression of genes I was interested in. It was great working in the lab, I got a ton of technical experience that prepared me immensely for graduate school. With all of the new material and experiences, being able to come in to graduate school already knowing the basics of laboratory science definitely gave me a head start. Working as an undergraduate researcher also taught me how to really think about how to approach setting up projects and how best to complete them, which is often not possible to do in most classes.
I was a junior when I joined the Harris lab. I was assigned a project studying how the gene LATD and abscisic acid, a phytohormone, effect the development of the symbiosis between the model legume Medicago truncatula and nitrogen fixing bacteria. It all seemed a little daunting at first but everyone in the lab was incredibly patient and helpful getting the project going. By the end I had learned everything from growing plants to molecular cloning techniques. Overall, it was the most enjoyable and valuable experience of my time as an undergraduate.
I began working in the Barrington Lab at the end of my freshman year at UVM. My initial work with Dr. Barrington centered on Polystichum (holly fern). Most of the ~250 species of Polystichum are found in Central and South America and East Asia. The big project of the Lab is to assemble a complete evolutionary tree for the entire genus. My task was to obtain DNA sequences for the species found in Hawai'i in order to determine who they were most closely related to. Following my work in Polystichum I began working in Matteuccia (ostrich fern). This project used random mutations in DNA sequences to determine the geographical distribution of the ostrich fern in North America during and following the most recent ice age. It was on this topic that I completed my undergraduate thesis.
In addition to these fern projects, my association with the Barrington Lab also allowed me to work briefly on Carex (in the sedge family), spend a summer working at the New York Botanic Garden studying cycads, and, later as a graduate student, spend a month botanizing in Costa Rica with Dr. Barrington and other students.
Following my graduation from UVM, I continued to work in the Barrington Lab for almost a year being a teaching assistant and doing DNA sequencing for Chinese Polystichum. I then enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens near Los Angeles, a program recommended to me by Dr. Barrington. After completing my M.S. on the problem of species concepts and species delimitation in Sanchezia (in the acanthus family), I left the program to begin studies as a seminarian for the Diocese of Burlington. I am currently living at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
Despite having set aside my botanical studies, there are few opportunities or people for which I am more grateful than those I found in the Barrington Lab. Students at UVM are particularly privileged in that they have the opportunity to work with their professors doing real science. I would strongly advise any students interested in making a career out of plants to take advantage of this opportunity and spend time in the various lab groups in order to discover what it is about plants that most interests them.
I began in the Harris Lab with work study and not knowing one thing about lab work. Under the guidance of Jeanne Harris and graduate students Yucan Zhang and Chang Zhang that quickly changed as I was taught techniques and procedures and became comfortable in the lab setting. In my senior year I enrolled in research for credit that gave me time in my schedule to focus on my own research project.
My research is investigating the role of transcription factor bHLH120 in Medicago truncatula. A transcription factor (TF) interacts with specific DNA sequences that can either turn on or off particular genes. In the lab we use latd, a variety of Medicago truncatula that has a non-functioning gene compared to the wild type and consequently has a different and defining root architecture compared to the wild type plant. Chang Zhang determined that latd does not have the same levels of the bHLH120 TF as wild type when a plant hormone abscisic acid (ABA) is present. ABA is involved in root growth, therefore I wanted to know what would happen if we gave the mutant plant more of the TF; would the mutant roots grow like the wild type roots? Likewise if we took the TF away in the wild type plant, would that plant grow like the mutant? I was able to answer these questions by molecular cloning and creating transgenic plants that would overexpress the TF. The TF was 'tagged' with a fluorescent protein so we could visualize the transgenic roots using fluorescent microscopy. The results were not as exciting as the process itself as I did not find significant differences when the TF was overexpressed. Evaluating removal of the TF in wild type is still in progress.
Working in the Harris Lab was the most valuable experience during my time at UVM because it reinforced what I was learning in chemistry, biology, genetics and physics as well as having the opportunity to apply the knowledge in a practical way. The Harris Lab became my home away from home and was a place I loved to be whether working on my research or interacting with the staff and students of Plant Biology. I forged long lasting relationships and gained skills and confidence that I will take into the work force.