by Elise Goitia '18
Tamia Phifer '18 is among the authors of an article in the international science journal Nature, where her name is listed along with the names of researchers from Pennsylvania State University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
The article, which describes the research done by scientists at the two universities, reveals how a parasitic plant utilizes cross-species gene manipulation to attack its victims. Their findings could lead to a method of engineering parasite-resistant plants that could reduce the loss of millions of dollars' worth of crops each year.
As a biology major, Phifer '18 was looking to participate in more research opportunities the summer before her senior year. Phifer's advisor, Associate Professor of Biology Matthew Jones-Rhoades, recommended she apply to do research at Penn State.
"It's a really cool opportunity," said Jones-Rhoades. "A place like Knox is fantastic in terms of its ability to train you generally in science. What you don't get to see necessarily is an institution where people are focused mainly on the research."
Phifer spent the summer working with graduate students and scientists examining how the parasitic plant dodder utilizes cross-species gene manipulation to attack its victims.
"Basically, we grew the host plants and attached the parasitic plants onto those, and we extracted RNA, a nucleic acid present in all living cells, from the host plants and parasitic plants to compare the differences of micro-RNAs," Phifer explained.
"The most important part we focused on was the interface, or where the two intertwined," she added. "We learned basically how the micro-RNAs of the parasitic plant attack the host plant's defense system."
Phifer, who had taken a molecular biology course in the past, said that having hands-on experience 40 hours a week in a lab was a "completely different experience" than in a classroom.
"Being an author on a Nature paper as an undergraduate is pretty awesome," added Jones-Rhoades. "There are a lot of steps and you have to be precise, so to successfully do a 10-week project is admirable."
Phifer also did a presentation on the work she completed at an undergraduate conference at Washington University. She was one of six Knox students who attended.
Phifer credits her professors with the opportunities she's had to learn experientially.
"My professors here at Knox have definitely contributed to the opportunities I've had," said Phifer. "The conference was one of the best experiences I've ever had as a Knox student. I'd give all the props to my SMC professors."