About half a million years ago, when North America was submerged beneath a shallow sea and life was still largely confined to the oceans, a change occurred: Tiny, moss-like plants began to colonize the land, clinging to rocky shores across the planet and sparking the rise of modern terrestrial plants. It is the descendants of these ancient plants that Associate Professor of Biology Karen Hicks and her research team, backed by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), will use to investigate the evolution of seasonal regulation of reproduction in mosses.
The three-year, $450,000 grant — awarded to Hicks by the NSF’s Research in Integrative Organismal Systems program — will enable Hicks to perform more expensive tests and procedures, hire more students in her lab during the academic year and supplement the Summer Science Scholars fund. Additionally, the grant will allow for the creation of a new postdoctoral fellowship in the Hicks Lab, which would be the first non-professor, postdoctoral position in the biology department since 2007.
Hicks was awarded the grant after her research pre-proposal was approved by a three-member panel of peers and her full proposal was approved by a secondary, five-member panel. About 10 percent of all proposals make it through this two-stage review process.
“I’m hoping students will be excited to work on this project. It will involve taking a whole genome approach to try to figure out how seasonal regulation works in moss,” Hicks said. “So, sequencing genomes from a large number of isolates from this species of moss that have been collected from around Europe and then looking at differential gene expression to determine which genes do what.”
When Maria Sorkin ’16, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Plant and Microbial Biological Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, worked with Hicks at Kenyon, she investigated the genetic mechanism responsible for triggering reproduction.
“I was looking at a specific candidate gene from data [Hicks] had collected during her sabbatical at New York University,” Sorkin said. “I tried to determine which genes were telling the moss when it was time to reproduce.”
Besides its importance in tracing the evolutionary history of genes responsible for cuing reproduction, Hicks’s research also has horticultural applications. “Reproduction is critical if you want to think about fruiting, which is the ultimate goal of agriculture,” Sorkin said. “The timing of reproduction has to do with how much time it takes to produce an apple, or corn or soybeans, and understanding the developmental processes of making fruit is one of the biggest questions in plant science.”
The postdoctoral fellow hired with funding from the grant will work on research in the Hicks Lab, mentor students and co-lead and teach classes. “A postdoc is something most Kenyon students are unfamiliar with, unless you have a parent in academia,” Hicks said. “After finishing a Ph.D., almost everyone who wants to stay in academia does a postdoc, and they almost all want the opportunity to delve more deeply into an area of expertise or try something new.”
“It’s a really critical transition period for a young scientist,” Hicks added. “This position is really intended for someone who would like a job like mine, where they would teach and work closely with mentoring undergraduate students.”
Elizabeth Abrash ’17, Jonathan Pang ’17 and Keith Adler ’17 are working in the Hicks Lab on projects related to the work outlined by the NSF grant proposal, examining seasonal regulation and reproductive development in mosses using a moss called Physcomitrella patens.
“My experience with Professor Hicks has been really great because she makes sure we focus more on understanding why we’re doing what we’re doing than just the technical aspects,” Abrash said. “She could just hand us a gene to do the research on, but she doesn’t think that’s helpful in the long run because it doesn’t give us experience building an experiment, and it’s also not as fun for us because we aren’t necessarily working with a gene that we’re interested in.”
Research projects aided by large grants provide liberal arts students with funding that is usually not affroded to them until they enter graduate programs in their field.
“After having a taste of different research projects [at Washington University], I can still say that the research I did with Professor Hicks was really interesting, really relevant and really exciting,” Sorkin said. “I was lucky to work on it as an undergraduate student.”