Dr. Greg Clark | How do Plants Talk?
Presenting my Research
All organisms have developed the ability to receive information about their environment and respond to this information appropriately. Plants, unlike animals, do not have the option of moving to change their location in response to their environment, instead plants change the way they are developing and growing. Plants respond to many different environmental signals including light, temperature, wind, touch, water, and attack from insects and infection. For example, plant roots can receive and respond to as many as 15 different signals at the same time. How are plant roots able to respond to so many signals at the same time? Scientists have discovered that plants use signals inside their cells to communicate and respond to environmental stimuli. But in what “language” do the plants communicate? It turns out that changes in calcium levels are one way plant cells talk. My thesis discovered that plants use special protein-machines to decode this calcium-based language. These special machines are called annexins. When annexins bind calcium they change shape, and this shape change communicates information to the cell and/or to other parts of the plant.
How did you become involved with “Present your PhD Thesis to a 12 year-old” project?
I have been doing outreach with my students at area elementary, middle and high schools over the past 6 years as the Freshman Research Initiative Outreach Director. Recently I developed a summer program for middle school students here at The University of Texas called “Shadow a Scientist” and Josh Russell was one of the scientists participating in my program. When Josh told me about the “Present your PhD Thesis to a 12-year-old” program I was immediately drawn to the potential for this project to significantly benefit both the middle school students and the science graduate students that participate. Middle school students are at a special stage in their education where they are still very curious and creative and are receptive to learning about science. One responsibility of being a scientist is to effectively communicate complicated research to non-scientist whether the non-scientist is a 12 year old or an adult. Importantly, this project gives graduate students the opportunity to develop this skill and participate in outreach to the community at an early stage in their science careers.
What is your goal introducing such a project/topic to young students?
My goal is to share my enthusiasm for scientific discovery with young people. I hope to provide Austin’s K-12 community with a real-life example of someone who thinks it’s just fine to love science and make a living engaging in it.