Biology Prof. Researches Plant Reproduction, Development
"Never lose your sense of curiosity, your sense of wonder. As a scientist, the more I study and learn, the more I realize how little we actually know about the whole process of life. It's so amazingly complex, and we just take it for granted."
Dr. Len Pysh, associate professor of biology at Roanoke College, puts that sense of intellectual curiosity to good use. For the past 12 years, he has studied a small plant, Arabidopsis thaliana, trying to unlock its secrets. "The projects we're working on combine molecular, cellular and genetic techniques to study a developmental process," he says. "I'm interested in understanding how plants go from single cells to multicellular organisms just as animals do. We all start off life as a zygote."
Pysh grins and adds: "That's one of the things that always captures my students' attention. It's, 'Oh, my gosh, Dr. Pysh is talking about sex in the classroom.'"
Actually, it's plant reproduction and development he's talking about, and it's a very complex process. Both plants and humans start out from a single cell and develop into distinct components based on function. "We don't really understand how that happens," Pysh says. "How do components of plants 'know' what shape to attain? Human cells have distinct shapes related to their functions; the cells take shape based on what they need to do. Plants do the same thing, so there are probably some parallels in the process. We're trying to understand how that happens."
All of the students who work with Pysh use the simple plant Arabidopsis thaliana as their organism of study, and their projects enable them to become familiar with common molecular and genetic techniques. Jess Simmers, his 2004 Summer Scholar, produced a research project titled Cell Shape Determination: Location, Expression and Function of SABRE in Arabidopsis thaliana. The junior says that the plant lends itself to such research because it's simple, takes only 14 weeks to grow to full size and is easy to work with because it has only five chromosomes and all five have been mapped.
"My project involved looking at very small roots and shoots, dwarf mutants," she says, explaining that alterations in the SABRE gene result in mutant plants. Pysh's earlier research had discovered small mutations in the SABRE gene, and her project was the next step. She was primarily trying to study the protein produced by that gene.
Jess, who was a grant-supported Summer Scholar in 2003 and has been recognized nationally as a Goldwater Scholar, began working on research with Pysh in the second semester of her freshman year. "He asked me if I'd be interested in being a research assistant on this plant and gave me a choice of three projects," she says. "He's my faculty adviser and probably the most influential mentor I've ever had. I'm grateful he took a chance on a freshman."
Pysh says he believes in providing opportunities for freshmen. When he came to Roanoke College in 1998, there were only a few opportunities for student research in his department and most went to older students. "I wanted a longer-term perspective, because if you start with a senior, by the time they learn how everything works, they graduate," he says.
"I wanted to start with freshmen, enable them to get established and learn the techniques. That way, they can work for three and a half years in the lab, which enables them to accomplish so much more because they become competent researchers.
"But I don't want students to just learn the techniques," he says. "It's even more important that they also learn how to think scientifically. That's hard; it requires creativity, logic, persistence and patience. You can't just look up answers on the Internet. You can face completely unexpected results, which is both exciting and frustrating. If students begin to think scientifically, that's what we're trying to accomplish here."
It's something Pysh has been working on since he joined Roanoke College as assistant professor. He's a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wabash College, summa cum laude with a double major in biology and chemistry, and earned his Ph.D. in biology at the University of California, San Diego.