News & Features

Planting Roots in Science

Summer Science Series: As part of the Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI) and other summer endeavors, students are collaborating with faculty advisors on high-level scientific studies—the kind usually reserved for graduate students. What discoveries are they making? This series answers the question.

Left to right: Kevin Lee ’14, biology professor Mark Schlessman, and Maria “Alex” Soto ’16. Image copyright Vassar College / Madeline Zappala '12.
Left to right: Kevin Lee ’14, biology professor Mark Schlessman, and Maria “Alex” Soto ’16. Image copyright Vassar College / Madeline Zappala '12.

Maria “Alex” Soto ’16 had a job lined up this summer at a hospital in her hometown of Cape Coral, Florida. But two weeks after she was accepted as a member of Vassar’s freshman class, she got a call from Dean of Freshmen Benjamin Lotto. How would you like to come to the campus this summer, Lotto asked her, and get paid for doing some original scientific research?

It was an offer Soto couldn’t refuse.

“Alex was saying yes before I had even fully explained it to her on the phone,” Lotto says.

Less than three weeks later, Soto arrived on campus and went to work. She’s spending most of her time in a greenhouse in Olmsted Hall, engaged in a study on plant gender with biology professor Mark Schlessman and her student mentor, Kevin Lee ’14.

Soto says Schlessman and Lee gave her a crash course on the procedures and techniques she needed for her work, then turned her loose on her project: finding out whether changes in the amounts of water and fertilizer she gives her plants will determine the gender of the seeds they produce.

“I haven’t really found a pattern yet, but it’s early,” she reports.

Male plants have stamens, which carry pollen, while female plants have pistils, which contain ovaries that become seeds after they’ve been pollinated. Most plants contain both pistils and stamens, but some have only one or the other, making reproduction more difficult.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Soto says as she takes a break from the painstaking task of pollinating her crop of Cleome gynandra plants. “I learned some basic stuff about plants in high school but I’d never done any experiments with them before and didn’t realize how complex they are.”

Soto is one of six incoming freshmen enrolled this summer in Vassar’s Diving Into Research program. Funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, it is designed to encourage low-income, minority students to pursue a major in the sciences by getting them involved in research before they take their first class.

“It’s really an extension of our science philosophy. Original research is an integral part of what we do here,” Lotto says. “The students we select [for Diving Into Research] have expressed an interest in science, and by giving them a good experience in the lab this early, we hope to retain them as science majors.”

Now in its third year, the program is already yielding results. Five of the six students enrolled in the first Diving Into Research class in 2010 are now majoring in science, Lotto says. About 15 percent of all Vassar students are science majors, he says.

Soto says her experience in the Olmsted greenhouse is reinforcing her desire to major in biology, and that the program has given her a jump on how science is taught at Vassar.

Lee, a biology major from San Francisco, is one of 60 students enrolled in the college’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute. In addition to his role as Soto’s mentor, he is engaged in two research projects with Schlessman, one on plant gender similar to Soto’s and another in which he classifies and catalogues vegetation along the Fonteyn Kill, a stream that runs through the campus.

Lee says he was happy to help Soto get acclimated—in the greenhouse and around the campus.

“When I was a freshman, a lot of people helped me feel comfortable, “ he says. “I have a lot of school pride, so it’s been fun to show Alex around.”

–Larry Hertz

Posted Wednesday, July 25, 2012