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Benning lab students win at 2018 ASPB Midwest Meeting

Two students in the lab of Christoph Benning have won awards for presenting their research at the 2018 Annual Meeting – Midwestern Section of the American Society of Plant Biologists.

Nick Fekaris, an undergrad student in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB), won second place for his oral presentation. Tomomi Takeuchi, a grad student in BMB, and Nick’s student mentor, won first place for her poster presentation.

The ASPB Midwest meeting, which took place at Iowa State University, “provides scientists at all career stages opportunities to discuss research efforts, teaching programs, funding scenarios, and career designs,” in the field of plant biology.

It is also an opportunity for students to practice presentation skills, which is why 9 members from the Benning and Hoffmann-Benning labs packed into a van and drove to Iowa.

Below are excerpts from an interview with the two winners.

What is your research on?

Nick: I work on a protein found in algae which supports them through stressful times, like when food is scarce. The protein helps them hibernate until the stress blows over. It’s basically a survival mechanism.

My project is to figure out which parts of this protein are important for it to work. At the meeting, I presented on one of these portions and reported that it is not essential for the protein to function fully. The way we found that out was to remove that portion from the protein and see if the algae were still able to go into hibernation. They did!

Tomomi: I work on the same protein. We think that, during the hibernation period, the protein blocks normal algae functions, like growth and cell division. In fact, without this protein, the algae have trouble doing cell division and coming out of their hibernation.

The members who went to the meeting.
Nine members of the Benning and Hoffmann-Benning labs
packed into a van and drove to Iowa.
By Igor Houwat, MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory

Tell us about your experience presenting at the meeting.

Nick: I’ve never given a formal scientific talk. I was nervous going in, as there were anywhere between 150 and 200 people in the lecture hall! But after watching other presenters, and seeing it was a hospitable environment, I wasn’t worried as much. The opportunity to present ended up being the most unique thing for me.

Tomomi: I agree with Nick that the meeting was a friendly setting to present and discuss science, and in terms of my poster talk, I was essentially giving a summary of my work to whomever came up to my poster. It was enjoyable to share my work with others and see other research, and some of the professors gave me good suggestions on how to proceed with my research. I also met with some of my collaborators for the first time in person. That was pretty cool!

What did it feel like to win?

Tomomi: I was very surprised. I was just sitting there and being myself, and then I heard my name being called. I got first place among around 100 other presenters!

Winning made me feel good about myself, since this is the first competitive award I have won in graduate school in terms of presentation skills.

Nick: Going into it, I wasn’t sure there were awards for my category. I was quite surprised to hear my name called when they announced the awards and ecstatic to go down there and get it. Plus, there was a monetary gift!

How would you present differently next time?

Nick and Tomomi talking at the conference
Tomomi (left) and Nick (right)
By Susanne Hoffmann-Benning

Tomomi: I’m happy with how I presented. But, I spent too much time talking to my collaborators and didn’t interact with other people as much or look up more posters as I would have wanted.

Nick: I think my presentation was a bit bland. I could have made it more colorful by adding figures and animating it, especially after I saw some people do things that I liked. Also, I would have practiced my presentation more.

How does your lab environment help you develop as a scientist?

Tomomi: Christoph [Benning] has always been there to offer valuable suggestions while giving me enough independence to pursue what I want, and I think it has helped me greatly in becoming a better scientist. Everyone who came on this trip from the Benning and Hoffmann-Benning lab did a great job, and it was a fantastic adventure.

Nick: I joined the lab looking to develop fundamental skills necessary to become a successful scientist, and that is exactly what I have gotten under Tomomi’s mentorship. I greatly appreciate her guidance and knowledge and believe the success we both achieved at this event was the result of working in a great environment.

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