The seeds for my current path

By Rachel Shen

This IAP has been unusually long. As the winter months stretch on, blending IAP into the two-week gap between the end of IAP and the beginning of the spring semester, I’ve found myself with more time to think about what I want to do as a scientist and how I got to where I am now. 

One of the things I value about the BioMakerspace is how it can provide a platform for people to pursue interests outside what is available in classes with more freedom in choosing and developing a project than in a typical UROP. In my case, it was projects having to do with plant science. So, how did I get here and where did this interest come from?

High School and Earlier

I grew up on the Massachusetts coastline in a city called Quincy. Geographically, it consists of two peninsulas and a long stretch of beach snaking its way toward Boston. As a child, I spent many hours observing the activities of the local wildlife, from the birds that would come to my backyard to peck at the birdseed I scattered outside before eating my own breakfast and going on bike rides around the city to the marshes and brackish creeks (to the consternation of my parents, who seemed convinced I would sink into the mud and disappear forever). 

Here’s some images to visualize where I grew up.

Part of the salt marsh in Spring.

Wollaston Beach in Summer: the ocean connects up to the brackish marsh

Houghs Neck Quarries in Fall. 

What really motivated me into science, though, was seeing firsthand how an understanding of science could make things ever better. When I was in sixth or seventh grade, the federal government initiated a marsh restoration behind my middle school. Over the course of two or three years, soil that was originally dumped there was removed, which allowed seawater to flow back in, turning the area back into a saltwater marsh complete with walking paths and small bridges –  a landscape considerably more interesting than the phragmites field it was before. Looking back, this was really the launching point for the next few years in an increasing interest in plant biology. 

For high school science fairs, I designed experiments around plants, such as studying the effect of dissolved oxygen on hydroponic lettuce, comparing allelopathic effects of invasive plants, and testing the effects of gibberellins on phragmites root nutrients storage.

Part of the reason was because research in these topics had a fairly low barrier to entry for me as a high school student. I was lucky enough to go to a school that had a horticulture class and a green house on the roof, which gave me access to the facilities and equipment to do the experiments I wanted. But another part of the reason why I chose these topics is simply because they were a lot of fun; I liked being able to see the organisms I was working with (though they did grow with limited success much of the time – winter is a difficult time to grow plants, even with a greenhouse). 

This interest in plants was evident when the time for college applications rolled around. I applied to several agricultural/plant science programs at schools like Rice University and Cornell. Getting accepted to MIT, however, was very exciting. Molecular techniques were starting to be applied to the field of plant biology and getting a biology or biological engineering degree with this focus, I thought, could be really helpful. 

I didn’t have a great idea what plant science would look like once I got a more formal education in biology. But I knew it was something I cared about and made me excited – so going with that small but important piece of information, I decided to go to MIT and pursue a degree in some sort of biological science. 

1st year – plants are also molecular??? 

My first lab based UROP at MIT was at the Velazquez Garcia Lab, where I worked with plant cell culture. We started with leaves from plants grown on the windowsill of the office window, and processed them through careful slicing, addition of media, and grinding. Our final cell cultures – both liquid and callus types –  no longer really looked like plants. They reminded me of instead of bacteria culture; abstract clumps of undifferentiated cells or single cells floating in the liquid media. In hindsight, this, in addition to my increasingly molecular background in biology, started to shift my perception that plant science could be molecular after all. At the time though, I realized that spending most of my time in the office and lab wasn’t a great fit for me – I liked being able to connect and physically be in the larger environment where the scientific concepts were derived from.  This was a valuable experience in both giving me a new perspective on plants as cellular creatures and in telling me a bit more about what I do and don’t want in a career.

2nd and 3rd year – NEET, oceanography, and COVID

Some of you may have read the article Janice and I wrote about Terrachip, which was our sophomore year project. For me, it was both a way to get back into plant science – something I realized I had really been missing during my heavily molecular based classes my freshman and sophomore year. It was also an exciting opportunity to apply a new technique with microfluidics and imaging to a field I already cared a lot about. Having been introduced to the BioMakerspace by my NEET teammates, Melody and Janice, I realized that this project could be a start for plant projects, and that I could have a platform to conduct some of my own experiments in plant biology. 

I also was accepted into a REU that summer at Cornell Agritech about using drones to quantify willow growth and health. I was psyched about this because it was the first time I would work with plants in the field! Having done a month-long fieldwork trip in geology, I found that I loved that kind of work – and I was excited about doing that in biology.

Unfortunately, due to COVID, the REU was cancelled. I did however find a few other opportunities; one in the Babbin Lab, which did research on the marine nitrogen cycle and one in iGEM (more about that in another post). Doing microfluidic research in the Babbin Lab reminded me of how much I enjoyed oceanography and larger scale ecology. I had done some programs in high school at the New England Aquarium and returning to this reminded me of how much I liked this field as well. I wonder if oceanography had been more accessible to me in terms of resources in high school, if I would have ended up doing this instead). 

We also have an extra two weeks between IAP and Spring this semester. I definitely missed having a side project to do on my own the way I did in high school with science fairs, so I took the time to try to do some aquatic plant cloning. Tissue cultured plants are somewhat common in the aquarium hobby, but I wanted to give it a shot myself. I chose an emergent plant (meaning they can grow both in water and in air) called Anubias nana, which stays small and needs relatively little light and carbon dioxide. I sterilized 10 jars of growth media (agar + sucrose + M&S media plant nutrients), growth hormones and plant preservative mixture (which contains antibiotics and antifungals)) and placed 2-4 plant fragments in each. They’re currently sharing space with my succulent collection under the my grow lights. Hopefully, they will develop into healthy adult plants!

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