NSF grant supports CC research

 Botany professor Rachel Spicer poses with plants inside Connecticut College's newly renovated greenhouse.

Botany professor Rachel Spicer poses with plants inside Connecticut College's newly renovated greenhouse.

Botany Professor Rachel Spicer has always admired trees.

“It’s their incredible strength and resilience,” she said. “Trees are the most massive and longest-lived organisms on Earth. They just deal with whatever nature throws at them and they are still beautiful to watch blowing in the wind.”

A new $395,064 grant from the National Science Foundation will support research by Spicer and her students into fundamental questions about how trees grow. The work has practical applications for biofuel development and forest generation.

The project will provide advanced research opportunities for nine students during the summer and another five to ten during the academic year. The grant, which begins in the fall of 2013, also includes funds for equipment and for travel to research conferences by Spicer and students.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” she said. “I love teaching, but the best teaching and learning experiences are through hands-on work in the field, greenhouse and lab. When I’m learning right alongside my students, or even better, when they teach me things, that’s the best.”

Read more about the grant.

Spicer is researching how the fast-growing poplar tree (Populus tremula x alba) lays down the intricate system of microscopic pipes that move water and sugar through the wood to the leaves and roots. The hormone auxin guides the process.

Students will do advanced work on gene expression – measuring where and how much a gene is turned on or off – and will use mass spectroscopy to quantify auxin from different parts of a tree. They will also help Spicer track the movement of auxin from young leaves to the woody stem below.

Few undergraduates have the opportunity to do that level of research. “The chemistry involved is quite challenging,” she said. Two students are already helping with independent research and are doing senior theses on the project. Spicer hopes it encourages more students to pursue careers in plant biology.

Spicer, whose grandfather was a tree biologist, has always loved trees.

“Flowers are beautiful, but they are fragile and ephemeral and they don’t command my respect the way trees do. Trees are awe-inspiring,” she said. “They make me think about my place on this planet. And because they are all around us, they make me think about it a lot. Trees provide me with perspective.”