Tyler McCubbin #IAmScience


Tyler McCubbin, a Ph.D. candidate, collaborates with the Peck Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I am passionate about solving real world problems with creative solutions.”

A lot of people get signs as a guide for the direction they’re supposed to take in life. Tyler McCubbin’s sign was more literal.

“There was a giant billboard alongside a county road and it said ‘Pray for Rain,’ and it’s probably still there,” McCubbin said. “Seeing that at the height of the drought was inspiring. It made me question why anyone studies anything other than drought responses.”

Now as a second year Ph.D. student collaborating with Scott Peck’s lab in Bond LSC, McCubbin studies drought’s impact on the crown roots of corn, which grow from the stem.

“We’re interested in what’s unique about those and why they can keep growing while everything else stops,” McCubbin said. “I’m able to make crown roots grow in a very dry environment. Then I dissect them into different regions and see which genes are turned on and off in response to drought.”

By using a strategically designed apparatus, McCubbin can control the soil environment the corn grows in and better understand why crown roots continue to grow.

“It took a lot of time to come up with the apparatus,” McCubbin said. “We’ve spent about a year optimizing it so that it’s repeatable and accurate.”

Doing that has streamlined his research and given him the opportunity to find results that can be applied to other aspects of the grant.

While the effort is collaborative between a number of labs, McCubbin is impressed by how centralized it is.

“The project is funded by the National Science Foundation,” McCubbin said. “There are six labs working on this project all at Mizzou, which makes this unique.”

And when he’s not working on the mechanisms that make corn roots able to survive drought, McCubbin spends as much time as possible outdoors.

“I am passionate about wildlife conservation and have participated in wetland ecosystem restoration efforts for most of my adult life,” McCubbin said. “If I’m not in the lab, I’m outside because it’s where I feel most at home.”

Chris Zachary #IAmScience

Chris Zachary.jpg

Chris Zachary, a junior chemistry major, stands near his lab station in the Mendoza Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because the lessons I learn through research will help me to one day become an astronaut.”

Asking kids what they want to be when they grow up usually leads to a variety of answers: doctor, lawyer, president, astronaut. A few years down the line, though, most of those answers change.

Chris Zachary, a junior chemistry major, is the exception. He never outgrew the dream of being an astronaut and is involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with going to space in mind.

“There isn’t a clear path to becoming an astronaut, but I was advised to stay in STEM,” Zachary said.

While his ultimate goal requires some extreme preparation and travel, Zachary keeps himself involved to make that dream a reality. Right now, he works in the Mendoza lab at Bond LSC, which he found through his involvement with Mizzou’s Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD).

“I knew I was interested in science and that I wanted to do something with chemistry,” Zachary said. “During an IMSD meeting, Mendoza came in and talked about what his lab does. I was interested, so I pursued it.”

The opportunity to do something a bit outside of the norm was appealing to Zachary because it helps to diversify his experience as a researcher and a student.

With two years under his belt in the Mendoza lab, Zachary now works to uncover some weighty issues in plant cells.

“Our lab focuses on heavy metal transporters, specifically iron,” Zachary said. “One of the most common forms of malnutrition around the world is anemia, and one of the best ways to fight it is to make more nutritious crops.”

That process is called bio fortification, and it allows plants to be more efficient at absorbing nutrients, which will help to alleviate world hunger.

When he’s not working to feed the world, Zachary’s dreams of blasting off to Mars consume him.

“There’s a lot that goes into being an astronaut, like a height requirement and physical tests, which is pretty daunting,” Zachary said. “In the end, though, it’ll be worth it.”

However, in the meantime he wants to maximize his experiences at Mizzou.

“[When choosing a lab] I didn’t want to close myself off,” Zachary said. “Working here helps me because instead of a narrow field, I chose the broader path. I can say I’m a chemistry major who worked in a plant sciences lab, which is huge.”


Sarah Gebkin #IAmScience


Sarah Gebken, a junior biological engineering major, works in the Pires Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I bring a unique perspective to the world of research.”

They say only an engineer could figure out their way around the engineering building at Mizzou. Now in her junior year, Sarah Gebken boasts the ability to do just that.

Her unique perspective as a biological engineering major translates to her work in Chris Pires’ lab in Bond LSC, too. As both an engineer and a scientist, Gebken is prepared to contribute new ideas when trying to find solutions to complicated issues.

“Engineering classes are geared toward problem-solving, so I’m able to pinpoint where we’re going to have issues,” Gebken said. “It gives me a different view on research.”

The lab focuses on trying to get Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) to work in Brassica oleracea — a species of plants that includes cabbage, cauliflower and kale. Doing so has the potential to transform the farming industry.

“The main goal of our research is to save farmers space and time,” Gebken said.

CRISPR acts like scissors to DNA, which helps Gebken and her lab mates gain valuable understanding of the genes.

“CRISPR codes for a protein that clamps onto the DNA and makes a cut,” Gebken said. “We’re relying on that cut to knock out a gene to see what the gene actually does.”

Although Gebken has been trying to find a solution to the same question since she joined the lab as a freshman, she still finds the research satisfying.

Working with the plasmids is the next piece of the puzzle that the lab is aiming to complete.

“We’re making progress, which is exciting,” Gebken said. “We just ordered our plasmids yesterday.”

Once they figure that out, it’ll allow them to use that understanding to make better plants for the world moving forward.

After she finishes her undergraduate degree next year, Gebken plans to pursue a master’s degree and ultimately earn a Ph.D.

“I want to go on and be an academic professor, which would be a lot of research,” Gebken said. “Even if I went into industry, I’d want to do some kind of research.”

For Gebken, the quizzical nature of science serves as motivation to keep going.

“In a research setting, everything is a question,” Gebken said. “And you don’t have answers to a lot of them.”

Piecing together plant immunity

Scott Peck-4620.jpgScott Peck studies Arabidopsis and how bacteria perceive it before initiating an infection. Roger Meissen/ Bond LSC

By Madelyne Maag | Bond Life Sciences Center

Bacteria and disease show no mercy to any organism they can effectively attack, including plants.

Yet, plants can also develop an immune response against these threats from their complex genetic makeup.

Scott Peck’s research delves into how plants do this and how bacteria evade those defenses.

Over the course of the last decade, the Bond Life Sciences Center investigator and professor of biochemistry has specifically looked into how plants are able to initially perceive and respond to potential bacterial threats through phosphorylated proteins and pathogen-associated molecular patterns.

“The overarching goal really with all of this research is to improve a plant’s resistance to potential pathogens in order to decrease crop loss,” Peck said. “That’s hundreds of millions of dollars lost every year to disease, so then that’s less food available and higher costs in the market.”

Peck recently published new work from his lab that observes how plants receive messages from potential pathogens and how they develop an immune response to these pathogens on a genetic level.

Similar to humans and animals, plants have a sensory immune response to know when a foreign object, such as a potentially infectious pathogen, shows up. One way they do that is by using receptors to detect certain molecules particular to an enemy like bacteria or viruses when they encounter the surface of a plant’s cells.

These pathogen-associated molecular patterns, or PAMPs, are recognized by the plant’s innate immune system and cause the plant to create a chemical defense against them. More specifically, when PAMPS are perceived, cells activate messenger proteins called mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs), which signal the plant of a potential problem. Because too much defense signaling can be harmful, another protein, MAP kinase phosphatases (MKPs), helps the cell determine how much of a defense response the cell should make against the enemy.

To better understand the plant’s processes of recognition and response to a potential pathogen, two separate studies analyzed how MKP1 is regulated and which cellular pathways are regulated by MKP1.

“For one of the first times, these studies using MKP1 gives us a large, specific set of gene markers to define individual pathways that respond after perception of bacteria,” said Peck. “We can now specifically take individual genes and know how they work and where to place them like a Jigsaw puzzle.”

Both of these studies are able to help us better understand how one particular plant protein reacts to a potential threat.

Peck made it clear that proteins and responses are altered during defense responses.

The next step would be to better understand how these processes interact to help the plant defend itself against a variety of pathogens.

“By really understanding how the plant does what it does under the best circumstances, we can try to then, either through traditional breeding or engineering, get plants to grow and reproduce without being as vulnerable to pathogens,” Peck said.