Apprentice with Professor Sarah Hake (Plant and Microbial Biology)
Tell us what you are currently working on.
The official description is mapping mutations to chromosomes. There is a certain phenotype in maize called ‘fascicled’: instead of developing one regular corn ear, the plant develops a branching sort of ear. You can imagine it as five pieces of corn fitted into one ear. This is a dominant phenotype, which makes it actually harder to track. If you have one dominant and one recessive genotype, the dominant phenotype still shows. Right now, we are isolating purely dominant genotypes so we can find where in the corn genome this mutation is.
What kind of techniques are involved?
If you go to the very beginning of the research process, you would start with planting the corn. Even though corn is a fast- growing organism, it is still not as fast as bacteria, and you have to plan your experiments around the growing cycle. First, you extract the DNA from the leaves. You use this to make sure you have a homozygous organism, and then you let it grow ears. After that, you do PCR – that involves pipetting, electrophoresis, and visualizing that under the UV light. There is a phenomenon called drooping leaf that is present in rice, and we thought for a while that it might be the drooping leaf gene that might be causing the mutation in the corn, but it turned out to not be a match. That is a lot of what science is – make a hypothesis, find out that it is wrong, and then formulate another hypothesis. A lot of research is trial-and-error.
You have been doing this for the second semester now. When you think back, do you recall what interested you about the program, what motivated you to apply?
In high school, I participated in the Young Scholars Program, which is a six-week research program in the summer at UC Davis that allows you to dig your toes into research. So when I came here, I wanted to do something like it. People actually tell you not to apply in your first year, but I did anyway. I had heard about URAP at Welcome Week, and had planned to wait until my sophomore year, but then I decided to go for it, expecting to get rejected, but at least I’d learn about the application process. (But it turned out I didn’t get rejected!). I applied to the Hake Lab because I had previously learned about a corn precursor, teosinte, and its evolution into modern maize. This is what started my interest in the world of genetics, and the Hake Lab seemed like the place to be!
Tell us about life in the lab.
There are regular lab meetings every Tuesday morning, and sometimes we have journal club meetings. And the PGEC (Plant Gene Expression Center) Building has a noon seminar on Fridays, where one of the researchers gives a small presentation about what they are doing. I don’t see Professor Hake all that much, but I have constant one-on-one with my direct supervisor, China Lunde.
But if you wanted to establish more contact with Professor Hake, would that be possible?
Yes, absolutely. I think I will ask her if I could spend more time with her.
When you think about your research experience thus far, what do you appreciate the most?
It is real. It is different than just reading the lab manual, which tells you exactly what to do, and just following the procedure. You are still following procedure, but every time you do it you are modifying it, and you don’t already know what the results will be. And from there you decide the next step. There is a real discovery going on here.
Is there anything about doing research that surprised you?
Maybe that science (in my lab at least) is dirtier than you might think it is. I mean literal dirt. Even though you are wearing gloves, the lab that you use looks just like the lab you use in class, there are no white lab coats, huge face masks.
Is there anything you would want prospective apprentices to know about?
Make sure you are really interested in what you are applying for, not just because you think it will look good. You will actually be doing this for a significant amount of time, and you are going to go deep into this field, and you need to make sure that you like what you are doing and that you are interested in it. And if you are, that is what is going to show in the interview; it is what is going to get you placed.
Thank you for doing this interview.