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Kate Volk, a senior majoring in biological sciences at North Dakota State University in Fargo, N.D., carries out field work earlier this summer at an NDSU test garden. Volk is one of a growing number of undergraduates who are conducting scientific research. IMAGE: NDSU

Fieldwork summer: Science undergraduates such as NDSU's Kate Volk conduct research

Editor’s note: These days, more and more STEM undergraduates are conducting research. One of them is Kate Volk, a North Dakota State University senior.

Thanks to a Frank J. Cassel Undergraduate Research Award, Volk is studying how prairie smoke – a wildflower found in Minnesota, the Dakotas and elsewhere across northern North America – varies depending on its surrounding environment.

In June, Volk talked with Prairie Business about her summer research.

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When did you first get interested in plants?

I was gardening with my mom; I don't know how old I was, but I was young. I remember her making a line in the soil and saying, “OK, put the seeds in there now,” and we did. Then it was just cool to watch them grow.

Later, my grandfather was a huge gardener, and I loved going out gardening with him.

And in the years since then, I’ve learned that I like studying plants. I think it's because plants are everywhere. We use them all the time, and they're beautiful.

I'm kind of a plant collector In my tiny apartment. I just like being surrounded by them; it feels good. And when it comes to earning a living, it’s good if you you can find something that you want to do. I'm lucky enough to have done that.

What is it about plants that is so interesting?

I think first, the beauty of them. The beauty is what got me. They're just very interesting to look at, and there are so many different varieties.

Then there’s just the diversity and sheer wondrousness of it. It's crazy to think that, for example, a giant sequoia – the redwood – grows from a seed that’s the side of a rice grain. And that’s not all: The seed stays dormant until conditions are right, and what I'm learning now is that hormones control a lot of that timing.

But just the fact that they can “sense” when the timing is right – that they somehow know – is cool. And I’m also excited that there’s so much that we still have to learn.

Have you been surprised by things that you've learned?

Constantly. For example, there are tropisms – those are the responses that make biological organisms turn or move toward light or gravity.

One cool thing I've learned about gravity is that inside a plant’s roots, there are specialized plastids, or tiny organelles. And if a plant tips over, these plastids are loose within the cell, so they settle at the bottom of the cell wall.

That's how a plant knows how to grow upright. It’s kind of like how we keep our balance, thanks to the canals in our inner ear.

There are so many things like that, and they’re all so interesting.

Tell us about your research this summer.

It's a huge project. I think Jill Hamilton – the professor I work for – has been doing this since graduate school.

She and her husband gathered seeds of this plant Geum triflorum – the common name is prairie smoke – from Washington to Michigan and up into Canada.

They collected 22 different populations of the plant, because the prairie smoke in, say, Washington differs from the same plant in Michigan.

Now, we’re planting the seeds from those different populations in our test garden to see how the differences show up.

What are the specifics of your work?

I'm looking at the differences between stomata, which are the tiny openings through which the leaves take in CO2 and let out oxygen. How do those differ in plants that are from the different populations?

You might hypothesize that the plants that came from harsher conditions have more stomata, while plants from other environments might have larger but fewer openings.

That’s the kind of thing I’m looking at.

How do you do it?

We apply New-Skin – a liquid bandage – to the leaves, then peel it off and put it on a microscope slide. The New-Skin gives you an impression of that very tiny area, including the stomata, and we photograph it.

Then I look at the photographs and basically measure the apertures – the length and width. I count the apertures and take measurements.

I think I have about 1,400 pictures to look at!

These days, do advisors recommend that undergraduates do research?

Yes, and it's such a great opportunity. I’ve met so many great people, and I’ve learned so much from the hands-on work. You can't really get that experience otherwise, and it opens so many doors.

Jill is pushing me, too, saying “I think you could publish this!” It's a really good motivator.

Are you hoping to go to graduate school?

I’d like to. I'd like to stay here, but it's all about whether a professor has the funds at the time, too. I'd like to keep working with Dr. Hamilton; she is an amazing researcher.

In the long run, I always thought it would be cool to do plant-science research for a state park system or a conservation agency. There also are seed companies and other firms that employ plant scientists to do work.

Your work will result in a presentation of some kind?

Yes; as part of the scholarship, they want you to do a poster presentation or write it up, but I'm probably going to do both. Dr. Hamilton is so confident, and as I mentioned, she wants me to publish by the time it's over.

It would be so cool if an undergrad got published; I think she knows better than I do where I will end up.