Dr. Xiao-Ning Zhang
St. Bonaventure University
By Andrea Westerlund
Curiosity is the essence of education. This is what Dr. Xiao-Ning Zhang of St. Bonaventure’s Department of Biology believes, and much of the reason she includes undergraduates so extensively in her research. “[Scientists] are not weird people. We do science because it’s fun for us and we want to share this view with students,” states Zhang.
Zhang’s research relates to the Arabidopsis plant, or “mouse-ear” cress. The cress is a “model organism,” which means the knowledge gained from studying it can easily be applied to many other organisms. Specifically, the research observes RNA splicing in the Arabidopsis. This is a naturally occurring function in all living things, including humans. However, if mutations occur during this process, it may lead to some serious malfunctions in the entire system. For example, such mutations can cause cystic fibrosis in humans.
In addition to the main project that studies different regulating factors in the splicing
network, Zhang and her students also apply outside variables to the Arabidopsis to study the RNA splicing process. One student, Alex Joseph, is studying how different concentrations of salt and sugar affect the growth of the seedlings and how germination will occur because of it.
When asked about the practical application of her research, Zhang responds emphatically: Wellness.
“Plants are at the bottom of the chain of life and without plants, humans would cease to exist, “Zhang says. She believes that understanding that fact will lead to a better environment and ultimately a better life for all human beings.
Just as the applications of Zhang’s research are infinite, so are the possibilities for every student who joins her in the lab. Zhang wants her students to enjoy the lab experience.
“If you don’t enjoy something, you’re not going to do it for the rest of your life,” she reasons. She also thinks that lab work can help to reinforce the knowledge students have gained from textbooks and in classes.
Some students even receive a salary for their work in the lab. Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, Zhang is able to pay some students a salary, with priority going to seniors. Juniors who are patient and remain with the program until their senior year will then receive the same benefits.
Many people may imagine research, especially of the magnitude that Zhang is conducting, to take place in a distant and intimidating laboratory. However, there are undergraduate students participating in exciting research right on our own campus and the benefits are tremendous.
One of the key capacities she hopes for students to develop is to have an open mind.
“If you don’t have an open mind, you’re not going to do good science. And it’s not just for your own sake, it’s for the sake of everybody,” says Zhang.
Zhang’s ongoing research is supported by an award (0950158) from the National Science Foundation.
(Westerlund, an English major from Lakewood, N.Y., plans to graduate from St. Bonaventure in December 2010. She has been accepted into Masters of Publishing Program at Pace University in New York City.)