Ph.D. dissertation wraps up student career.
By Erica Overfelt | Bond LSC

Dissertaion Defense

Ending your career as a student is a whirlwind of emotion.

Ph.D. student Ben Spears soon will be saying his final goodbyes to his lab after he gave his final presentation earlier this month. Spears spent the past six years in Walter Gassmann’s lab in Bond LSC, and he has been a student for almost all of his life.

“You know it is kind of surreal,” Spears said. “It’s hard to describe. I mean, I don’t know what it is like to not be a student. It is a new chapter.”

Spears’ dissertation defense bookended this chapter of his life.

“The first component is pretty much a public seminar,” Spears said. “Generally, only people who care about the subject matter or individual come. I gave a presentation on my research, even though I can’t cover everything but I will tell a story about my work.”

Spears’ focuses largely on plant immunity.

“Plants have an immune system just like we do,” Spears said. “Our immune systems keep us protected from different pathogens, and plants do the same,” he said. “There are many similarities between the immune systems of plants and animals, and the plant protein that my work revolves around acts as regulator of gene expression in both immunity and development.  Understanding the mechanisms behind the tradeoff between these biological processes is really exciting.”

Colorful slides of plants, compounds and descriptions of his work filled his presentation. Spears artfully talked about his research about 30 people that included a committee — his advisor Gassmann, Paula McSteen, Melissa Mitchum and Jim Schoelz — that had read his dissertation to before. The purpose of the committee is to point out faults in the dissertation and to advise the student through the synthesis.

“It’s a panel of the experts in my field,” Spears said. “There are notable figures in the plant science field, but they don’t all work in my specific area of research. Mitchum works on plant-nematode interactions, while my research uses a bacterial pathosystem. McSteen doesn’t work on host-pathogen interactions at all, but her expertise in plant development is useful to my work on other aspects of my protein-of-interest’s function. This presents valuable, contrasting opinions.”

The dissertation is more than a reality check, it also signifies independence as an academic and researcher.

“At this point of your Ph.D. you’ve demonstrated your independence nearly to the point that you can run your own lab,” Spears said. “It’s a big shock, it probably has not even registered yet to be perfectly honest, but I’m excited. I don’t quite know what to think about it yet.”

Bond LSC congratulates Spears who, along with Kevin Kaifer from the Chris Lorson lab and Nga Nguyen and Samuel McInturf from David Mendoza’s lab recently defended their dissertations and will officially graduate this weekend.