The Huck Institute sponsors a competitive grant program for graduate students to enhance their research and education. Carrie Lewis profiled the most recent batch of awardees in one of the first posts on The BRIDGE, but I wanted to catch up with some of our previous winners to see how the award has helped enhance their graduate school experience.
I talked with Shu Li, a student in the plant biology program and 2013 recipient of the Huck Dissertation Research Grant (then referred to as the Graduate Student Enrichment fund) to see what she’s up to.
Shu is a 6th year plant biology student in the lab of Dr. Teh-Hui Kao studying the system of self-incompatibility (SI). Using petunia plants as a model, Shu and her labmates study this intraspecific reproductive barrier that prevents inbreeding and promotes outcrossing. Specifically, she’s trying to unravel some of the mechanisms and proteins that lead to a pistil either rejecting (incompatible) or accepting pollen, leading to fertilization and reproduction.
The SI mechanism plays an important role in the development of hybrid crops and draws parallels to other self/non-self recognition systems, such as T-cell receptors and foreign antigens in adaptive immunity.
SI isn’t something that most scientists, or even plant biologists, have at the front of their minds. The Kao lab is a leader in the small field, having focused on the SI system in petunia for nearly thirty years. With few research groups generating results, students in the lab have to take tools from other fields and apply them to their own work. The Huck Dissertation Research Grant has allowed Shu to gain insight and ideas from others in plant biology by funding her travel to the American Society of Plant Biologists’ annual meeting.
Communicating science is not just a tool Shu has used to further her research, but it has become a passion of hers and something she would like to incorporate more into her career down the line. Her “if I wasn’t a scientist” dream is to be a writer. She relaxes and takes her mind off of experiments by reading, adding “my long-time favorite author is Haruki Murakami, and my favorite book of his is Kafka on the Shore. Currently I am reading Lawrence Block a lot. I admit that I am obsessed with his long-running New York-set series of stories about a recovering alcoholic personal investigator, Matthew Scudder. If you are curious about him, Eight Million Ways to Die is the one I would recommend to read.”
In addition to travel and communication, the research grant has provided assistance for Shu to complete some mass spectrometry work that she’s currently incorporating into a manuscript; the completion of which is fueled by copious cups of coffee. As any graduate student knows, working on a manuscript requires a certain degree of distraction, which Shu gets from working with the local Graduate Women in Science chapter, drawing, and glancing at a favorite website of hers, 1000 awesome things.
Though Shu has certainly been a successful graduate student, she has faced some challenges, ranging from the language barrier to missing the famous attributes of her hometown, Tianjin, China: food and the Chinese style stand-up show. She’s filled these voids, partially, with the friendship and support of others in the plant biology family and taking advantage of the best State College has to offer, the summer Arts Fest. And even though the rules still perplex her, she’s going to try to catch a football game before she graduates.
Shu had many words of wisdom for younger students, ranging from the mental side (“we all need to be realistic”), to the physical side (“learn how to stay relaxed”), to the practical (“before you pack for graduate school, learn how to cook tasty food in a time and effort efficient way (Oops did I include healthy as a criteria? Never mind, who cares)”). She sums up the feelings of the process of research of research nicely:
“Probably 95% of the time is searching around, collecting pieces of information and trying to figure out the clues from the mess, and it’s easy to feel like you are wasting the time and get frustrated … We have to keep our eyes open all of the time, and once we figure out the most important clue, all the information we collected on the way starts making sense, and tells us the whole story. ”