Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Soil moisture and plants' circadian rhythm

Confidence building through science: A glimpse into SRAP research life
The Student Research Apprenticeship Program (SRAP) is a paid summer research program at the University of Wyoming for high school students in tenth through twelfth grade. It is sponsored by Wyoming EPSCoR and funded by the National Science Foundation. This is the tenth of eleven stories about the laboratories where this year’s SRAP students are working.

Armando Guerra works on a gas exchange in a greenhouse.
Drought is not uncommon in the west. States like Wyoming have faced drought conditions for over a decade, leaving the environment dry, vulnerable and often dead looking. Without a doubt, drought impacts plant life, but to what extent can plants adapt their physiology to survive in the dry conditions? This summer SRAP student Armando Guerra is working to help answer this question alongside Dr. Brent Ewers and his graduate student Tim. More specifically, Armando and Tim are looking at how soil moisture impacts a plant’s circadian rhythm.
“Plants have a circadian rhythm just like every other organism,” Dr. Ewers explains.
This project aims to find out if adjustments in the circadian rhythm of plants have something to do with drought response. In order to do this, Armando and Tim are growing plants in their natural environments and controlling the moisture levels of the soil. To determine the correlation between soil moisture and the circadian rhythm, Armando is helping take a variety of measurements, including measurements of leaves.
“One of the measurements Armando is really interested in is called aquaporins,” Dr. Ewers says. “These are proteins in the membranes of cells that allow for the transportation of water.”
By measuring how much these proteins contribute to the total movement of water in the plant, the team aims to understand if the relationship between the circadian rhythm and soil moisture is affected by aquaporins. Armando’s interest in aquaporins is just one of the things that have impressed both Dr. Ewers and Tim about his work.
“Tim has been very pleased. He can tell Armando, ‘you need to do these tests and then I’m going to come back and check,’ and Armando just does it; he digs right into it,” Dr. Ewers says. “He is willing to take initiative and that’s often missing (in students new to the lab).”
Dr. Ewers found out about SRAP from a colleague working on a joint project. He has been a mentor now for several years and enjoys the perspective and enthusiasm that SRAP students bring to the lab.
“They’re just unbounded in their creativity and how they think the world works. That’s just really fun to engage with,” Dr. Ewers says. “It’s very interesting to interact with a high school student and to see what the world looks like through their eyes.”
While Dr. Ewers steps into the world seen by his SRAP student, Armando, also steps into another world- the world of a scientist. He experiences the timely process of scientific work, he participates in the exchange of information, and he contributes to the project in a professional manner. Whether he is digging into the molecular work of measurements, or literally digging into the ground, Armando is both learning and teaching.
“He has some nice practical skills that I didn’t expect at all,” Dr. Ewers explains. “These high school students don’t just come in as sponges to absorb from us: we’re learning from them as well.”
While Armando is adept with using the tools, he is learning new skills through the process of building green houses, putting in moisture probes, plating plants, caring for them and harvesting leaves for measurements. Over the course of his SRAP internship, he will experience everything from plant growth to molecular biology- a full spectrum of biological research.

By Kali S. McCrackin

Photo courtesy of Dr. Brent Ewers

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