Undergraduates, faculty members at Doane looking for ways to feed the world in national research projects.
BY LUCAS FAHRER
PHOTOS BY ANDREW MATTSON
How can something so small be so big?
On the surface, the fate of a lonely corn seedling in Nebraska down to a gene in a grain of rice’s DNA matters little.
The world keeps on turning—until it doesn’t.
World hunger is real, and millions of humans are underfed, undernourished and unaware of when and where they’ll find their next meal. According to the United Nations’ World Food Program, as many as 795 million people—a ninth of the world’s population—don’t have enough food to lead a healthy life.
Research teams around the globe are hunting for an answer, and they’re on the clock. Solutions can come from anywhere, and small ideas can grow into bigger ones.
Maybe the answer is under a microscope.
In a photo gallery.
A data set.
A lab or a corn field.
Maybe the answer is somewhere between all of them.
Ask any of the handful of Doane undergraduates working on National Science Foundation-funded crop research and you’ll find out how they’re looking at the problem from all of those angles to find an answer to end world hunger.
Even from a town in rural Nebraska, they can see how something so small becomes so big.
Amidst a stack of different windows—grant documents, emails, images—Dr. Tessa Durham Brooks’ opens up “Plant 55” on the desktop of her computer.
Two close-up images of a corn seedling—a before-and-after—appear on the screen.
“Here it is as a baby, here it is as an adult. Isn’t it cute?” she jokes, pointing out the differences between the two in her office in the Lied Science and Mathematics Building.
This is a different look at corn; detailed images taken with digital cameras under specific, regimented circumstances. This little seedling learned to endure—and survive—the cold.
That’s where Dr. Brooks, associate professor of biology, and her student researchers are looking for answers. Since March, they’ve been testing corn seedlings with early cold treatments, mimicking springtime cold snaps in the lab before transplanting them to a test field on Doane’s Crete campus. It’ll help them figure out which genotypes (its particular genetic makeup) of corn they’ll base their studies off.
“We’ve taken two different genetic types of corn and we’re just trying to bombard them with all kinds of different cold stresses,” Dr. Brooks says, “and see when can we make these two different genotypes look as different as possible.”
They can track the contrasts through consistent imaging, and find a baseline to collect solid data on what exactly affects the corn’s development. The differences will help them narrow their focus to which genes inside the corn’s DNA are most important in expressing greater resistance to cold.
Developing a cold-resistant variety of corn would allow the crop to be grown in more areas, increasing yields and feeding more people. That’s what the NSF is interested in with this research grant, $5.6 million in funding for the next four years of the project shared by Doane, the University of Florida, University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin.
The two different varieties Dr. Brooks’ team is searching for will eventually be tested in labs in Florida, Minnesota and Wisconsin, where their researchers can run tests on thousands of different genetic lines of corn. Those results will lead to field tests to make corn varieties that can thrive in northern climates like that of Minnesota and Wisconsin.
It’s of interest to students who grew up in the Cornhusker State and other agricultural-centric parts of the world.
To biology major Qing Li ’16—an international transfer from Shijiazhuang, China, interested in a career in plant breeding and genetics—it was an easy sell.
“Last semester I wanted to do some research and get in the lab,” says Qing, known by her classmates as Janet. “I asked Tessa and she brought me some experiments to see which one I was interested in, so I chose this one about corn.”
Qing worked in the lab to grown corn in its early stages and track its growth with imaging while Terra Hartman ’16 became the team’s natural field expert. Her family’s farm in Douglas has been going strong for five generations, and she interned as a field technician at a BASF research farm in Beaver Crossing.
“I had been doing field work out there for them, working with corn and soybeans and wheat and a few other crops,” says Terra, another biology major. “I knew a lot about establishing a field research site and maintaining it.”
Even those without an abundance of research experience were drawn to the project.
Callie Jane Vickers ’18, a biology-psychology double major from Omaha, talked with Dr. Brooks about getting in the lab last spring to find a project to help her toward a future in behavioral neuroscience.
She’s focusing on plant behaviors, particularly an extension of the project on root exudate, a secretion left in the augers where the corn seedlings are grown.
Even as a sophomore, she’s getting the chance to work on a real-world issue while getting her feet wet in the lab.
“Learning simple techniques in the lab and understanding how that works, I knew it’d be fundamental for the rest of my college career and what I might want to do later,” Callie Jane says. “I was just attracted to learning how to do science.”
Dalton Bichlmeier ’17 couldn’t resist.
One more minor?
“Sure, why not? That sounds like fun,” the junior from Norfolk remembers saying. (Two minors—chemistry and history—to go along with his pre-med/biology major just weren’t enough.)
Dr. Erin Doyle, associate professor of biology, had a convincing offer after all: the new minor would bolster his future application for med school.
And an exciting research project coming down the pike didn’t hurt either.
With a background in bioinformatics and connections from graduate school at Iowa State University, Dr. Doyle helped get Doane in on a $5.5 million NSF grant that runs for four years. The project focuses on quantitative trait locus engineering, investigating how targeted genome editing—precisely finding, cutting, removing and replacing DNA in a living cell—can help improve rice’s ability to grow.
“The idea that we could potentially make a rice that everyone is eating in a few years was fascinating to me,” Dalton says. “I got hooked from there.”
Dr. Doyle persuaded another biology major and computational science minor, Michael Shavlik ’18, to join them, corralling him out of summer lab rotations with Dr. Brooks’ corn research team to work on her own NSF-backed project.
“She had already convinced me to tack on this computational science minor during the semester before,” says Michael, an Elkhorn native. “Then I just ended up really liking it.”
That’s saying something—because not every college student likes spending their summer break poring over data spreadsheets for 30 hours a week.
But for two students interested in affecting change for a staple crop that feeds half of the world, it makes perfect sense.
“They understand that the stuff that they’re working on is going to feed the world,” Dr. Doyle says. “We’re going to have 9 billion people on this planet in 50 years and we can’t feed them all. We just can’t. What we have to do is do things like this that are going to increase the amount of food we can grow. My students absolutely understand that.”
Dalton, Michael and Dr. Doyle are looking specifically at disease resistance, but they aren’t jumping into the lab. (That comes later.) They’re working strictly on computers, combing through data, writing code to extract information and cataloging which DNA sequences are most associated with disease susceptibility and acidic soil toleration levels.
And they’re on the front lines of this project, just as much as their joint researchers at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York), Colorado State University and the University of Minnesota who they speak with regularly via Google Hangout.
“The cool thing is that no one else has really looked at this data yet, so we’re getting to be the first people to look at a particular data set in a particular way,” Dalton says. “We’re not repeating some experiment that someone else has done.”
Eventually, Dalton and Michael will get to take their research from laptop to the lab. The grant has built-in funding for Doane students to spend their summer at Cornell, conducting research in the Ivy League school’s facilities.
By that time, the conclusions they’ve made from comprehending the massive data sets will help them focus on how to genetically edit a better rice.
“They’re seeing the whole process from starting out at the computer to taking it to the lab and doing work at the bench,” Dr. Doyle says.
At times, you can find these research teams working in the Lied building at the same time.
It’s impressive to find one of these projects on a liberal arts college campus. Doane has two—in the same building—and even more going on.
Faculty in Lied have been actively seeking research grants for several years, going hand-in-hand with curriculum requirements for research projects.
Securing those grants makes Lied a research hub year round and keeps experiential learning at the heart of a Doane education.
“When you have money to spend on research, it’s like a playground,” Dr. Brooks says. “Research is a requirement of the whole building and our internal grant system keeps faculty active over the summer, too.”
Doane’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics division has a history of working with funding from the NSF, specifically the Nebraska office of its Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. Biology and chemistry faculty have been part of grants as small as $2,000 to multimillion-dollar funding in the last decade.
Science students aren’t coming to Doane hoping to be involved in research. They’re expecting it.
“You can do research that leads to a publication or maybe you go present at a national meeting somewhere,” Dr. Doyle says of the college’s undergraduate research opportunities. “That’s what’s really great about research here at Doane: We’ve got it built into the culture, and it’s a selling point when we’re talking to students who are thinking about where they want to go to college. They come in as freshman, and they’re aware research is going on and they want to get involved with it.”
It’s one of the reasons why Doane students have success placing in advanced degree programs; the Class of 2015 had a 90-percent graduation school placement rate by graduation time in May.
The students involved in the crop research projects are all working toward grad school, and Terra—who will be applying to plant pathology programs next year—feels ready because of her experience majoring in biology at Doane.
“Throughout all of those other classes I’ve taken, it’s been practice for keeping a good lab notebook, figuring out how to take data, problem solving and stuff like that,” Terra says. “Doane does a really good job of guiding you through the research.”
That’s how undergraduates here can talk to scientists around the world, and play a meaningful role in novel research with real-world implications.
“It really makes you realize how much of a worldly problem this can be,” Michael says. “Sometimes, when we’re at a small college in Nebraska, it’s hard to expand your bubble out to New York, Minnesota, Colorado and over in Europe. You hear all of these people who are getting in on this same research project that you’re working on and it really shows that this is something that will impact a lot of people in a lot of different ways.”