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Undergraduate Research Forum - Part 1/3: Hope Hersh

The University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum (UURAF) provides MSU undergrads with the opportunity to showcase their activities in a public setting. According to the website, “undergraduates gain experience in presenting their research, answer questions about their work from audience members and guests, and receive constructive feedback from judges.” Judges interact with presenters& at random to ensure research is solidly understood. The best presenter in each category in each of the three sessions wins a $100 award.

Not all paths to plant biology are straightforward. Some start from childhood, playing in the dirt or living on farms. Others, like Hope Hersh, travel a path less obvious. Hope, who hails from neighboring Howell, originally wanted to attend medical school at Michigan State University, and lab research, no matter where, was a required stepping stone. She ended up in Christoph Benning’s lab in the Plant Biology building, “washing dishes and doing lab maintenance” as she bided her time.

Hope Hersh with her plants
Hope attending to her plants

A year later, she was assigned to a postdoc for a semester and had the opportunity to get her feet wet. “I fell in love with it. That’s what I really wanted to do. So when the postdoc left, I asked if I could stay on, and they found me a place with another graduate mentor.” Fast forward: currently four years into a double bachelor in Biochemistry and Plant Biology, Hope wants to get a PhD in Biochemistry, and at MSU, if she has the option.

Hope’s UURAF presentation focused on the SFR2 gene (Sensitive to Freezing 2), discovered in the Benning lab, that could be key in revolutionizing how crops are grown. The implications are significant in the context of a global population growing at the rate of 200,000 people a day and facing food shortage problems. Usually, freezing quickly draws water out from plant cells. This dehydration causes the cells to shrink and eventually collapse into themselves and then burst after thawing, when the water rushes back in. SFR2 is activated in response to freezing in order to create a protective layer around chloroplasts, small bodies in plant cells that are the site of photosynthesis. If the chloroplasts were not protected from freezing, plant cells would not recover, as they would lose their ability to photosynthesize.

Studying the plant anti-freeze system

Hope’s project is part of a larger effort within the Benning lab to examine whether SFR2 responds to other dehydration stresses than freezing, such as extremes in temperature and salt content (These dehydration extremes, low or high, similarly affect us humans). She has focused her search onto the effects of high salt content to understand if and where the SFR2 gene comes into play.

Generally, gene expression of SFR2 is modified through genetic engineering techniques to optimize the activity of the gene. This is analagous to what plant breeders have done for millennia with crop cross-breeding, except, breeding is more time-intensive than genetic engineering.

“Imagine the implications,” Hope exclaims. “In our experiments, we are working with tomatoes because they are important agricultural crops. Even though they have the SFR2 gene, they are still sensitive to freezing. Does that mean that SFR2 is not functioning properly in sensitive plants as tomatoes, or could it be that SFR2 functions to combat other types of dehydration stresses in tomatoes, as I am examining? We're not sure yet. If we understand how the resulting protein functions and can properly implement it, our plants would be theoretically resistant to extreme weather and environmental conditions and could grow anywhere! That’s huge!”

Hearing her speak, it is not hard to imagine rows of tomatoes growing robustly in a snow-covered Midwestern field. Weird, but tantalizing.

Bringing the lab to the public

Although the PRL is geared towards graduates and postdocs, Hope is among many undergraduates learning the ropes in a nurturing environment. Beronda Montgomery, Professor at the PRL, notes that, “The PRL is the sort of place you can do collaborative cutting edge research while incorporating excellent training and mentoring so that students can continue the work in the future. It is the fabric of who we are.”

Hope's graduate student advisor, Kenny Wang, usually assigns her projects that double as educational experiences and contributions to the lab’s research goals. Their working relationship has flourished as a result of Hope’s dedication and Kenny’s mentorship. “The work flows so well between us," Hope says. "We can understand each other at a glance. He’s become like an older brother to me.”

Hope with poster.
Hope's poster.

The UURAF was Hope’s first time presenting to the general public. “I had done it one-on-one or in a classroom. But at the UURAF, there were so many people, and the atmosphere was chaotic. I was super nervous going into it, but I settled in after the first presentation.” Hope shared her knowledge with postdocs, parents interested in tomatoes, advisors from various departments, and fellow students. She particularly enjoyed interacting with people who knew nothing about biology. “It required a lot more explaining,” she remembers. “I practiced a lot beforehand in front of my boyfriend, and he’s not a scientist. I found that teaching others is really different than writing something down, and I ended picking up a lot of analogies to get the message across.”

Her advice for future presenters? “Know your research inside out, and then you get to show your passion! I was so excited to share something that could potentially change how tomatoes and other crops are grown. And the judges definitely saw that.”

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