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STEM Interview: Erica Q.

Note from the Editor:


This is Dana here, one of your Radar science section editors.

I know that there are many budding scientists on campus curious about the STEM program and its participants. Thus, for the next few weeks, I will be conducting interviews of the STEM program alumni, asking about their research, contributions, and passion for science. My hope is for those interested in the sciences to find potential mentors, friends, and contemporaries in these STEMmers, people who can fan their passion for science and start them down the right path.

On another note, if you would like to be interviewed about anything science-related that you’ve done before, or if you have a science topic/discussion you would like to be featured on Radar, contact the science editors Dana Zhu or Samantha Xiao. Let’s work together to build a closer science community, and, if I may, recruit the potential scientists who have not yet seen the true wonders of the science world.

The Radar, and more specifically, the Science column, is your place to shine, your place to connect, and your place to discover.

Your Co-Science Editor,

Dana Z.

Erica Q. Photography by Lena M. ’15

STEMmer Erica Q.: Can we modify plants to lose less energy while keeping itself from getting “sunburned”?

Where did you work and what was your research about?

I worked the Niyogi Lab at UC Berkeley, in the Plant and Microbial Biology Department. I was researching how plants protect themselves from the sun. Plants, like people, can be damaged by UV light. For people, we go out in the sun and can get sunburn. For plants, their proteins could be denatured, and that’s bad. What a lot of plants do is something called NPQ, which stands for Non-Photochemical Quenching. NPQ is a process where plants change the configuration of their light receptors so that instead of absorbing that light energy and turning it into food, they release that light energy back into the environment as heat. They only do that in high levels of light: so in low levels of light, there’s a low level of NPQ, and in high levels, there a lot of NPQ going on.

So what part did you specifically partake in this research?

I was studying the protein called KEA-3, and what KEA-3 does is that it helps plants turn off NPQ really quickly, allowing the plants to adapt to high light and low light. This is really important because if NPQ is happening when plants are in low light, then plants are losing light energy that it could be using to make food, meaning less food for the plant, and less food for us too.

KEA-3 has 3 parts: there’s this big middle part and there then there’s a region at the end called the c-terminus. My mentor wanted to know what was the role of the c-terminus. Prior to my coming to the lab, she had created an experiment comparing the effects of a regular protein and a protein that she had made, one without the c-terminus. She then put these proteins in plants and found that they had an effect on the EPQ process, which was exciting, because it was like “yay! We can move on with our research”. However, after analyzing the amount of proteins in the respective plants, she found that there were different amounts of KEA-3, which means these plants were originally quite different, according to natural variation. Realizing that was kind of a bummer because she couldn’t say whether the resulting effect was caused by the amount of protein or by the lack of a c-terminus.

And so my job was, well, to find out “which one was it?” Was it because of the amount of protein or because of the lack of c-terminus? And that was really cool, because during my eight weeks at the lab, I was able to start my project and finish it.

Oh, wow. This is amazing!

Yeah. Now we know the results, and she can continue with whatever her next step is going to be.

So, your project helped her research overcome a huge hurdle, right?

It did, which is amazing. I don’t know what she was working on when I was there but she gave me this project and was like “Here are some of the steps you need to figure this project out, and I’m going to show you the tools you need to do it, but it’s all on you”.

Was there anybody else working on with you? Because this is really big!

It was just me working on this. It was amazing. SO amazing.

So do you think you will be a microbiologist when you grow up?

I don’t know. I definitely want to do something with the sciences. Maybe engineering. I really like how things work. So this was amazing because it was how things work on the microscopic level. It was incredible.

This article only touched upon the major components of Erica’s research. Stay tuned for a more in-depth look into its context and specific details.

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