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The Washington Research Foundation Fellowship

Katherine Liu, Biochemistry, Neurobiology - 2007-08 RFAU

Katherine Liu, 2007 RFAU recipientI came to the University of Washington only knowing I wanted to earn a degree in something-biology. I had no idea what either what academic research was or how it might involve me. The summer after my freshmen year I participated in the NASA Space Grant's Summer Undergraduate Research Program, recommended to me by friends who had completed the experience the summer before. SURP matched me with a mentor in the department of Electrical Engineering. Although the experience didn't cause me to pursue that particular field, it did open my eyes to the benefits and opportunities inherent in conducting undergraduate research.

In total, I have participated in five research projects ranging from basic neuroanatomy research at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory to the development of a MATLAB based program for analyzing radar data from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Research has given me contacts and allowed me to explore potential career interests in a way I never would have accomplished in the classroom. Perhaps most importantly, as a person hoping to pursue a career in medicine, undergraduate research in the biological sciences has introduced me to the process of discovering and developing medical therapies.

Planning to study abroad for the year with the UW-Sichuan Exchange program, this current project is the result of taking a topic I love, neurobiology, and finding a way to apply it to the field. Many thanks to Professor Elizabeth Van Volkenburgh and Professor Stevan Harrell, who have helped me develop and bring into reality this project. For the 2007-2008 academic year I plan to be in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China, studying Mandarin and conducting research.

Mentor: Elizabeth Van Volkenburgh, Biology

Project Title: Exploring the properties of mechanoreceptors in D.peltata in both the lab and in its natural environment in the southwestern regions of China’s Sichuan Province

Abstract: The carnivorous plant Drosera peltata is unique in its ability to respond to tactile stimuli with movement. This ability suggests the existence of mechanoreceptors – specialized ion channels that allow an organism to sense tension, pressure or movement in tissues of its periphery. The sessile life of plants is misleading. It suggests they are passive things, incapable of interacting with their environment. This, however, is simply not the case. Plants grow to avoid obstacles, react to changing soil moisture or seasons. Well known oddities, plants like Mimosa and the Venus Fly Trap are capable of producing quick, visible movement in response to tactile stimuli. And while they do not possess any specialized neuron-like cells, plants do exhibit many analogues to the animal nervous system. Many plants have recordable action potentials – transient intracellular depolarizations that propagate along the plant's length. They have also been shown to express neurotransmitters typically found in animal nervous systems including serotonin, glycine, acetylcholine and glutamate. In addition to action potentials, plants exhibit slow-wave potentials that follow changes in hydraulic pressure. Lastly, the plant signaling molecule auxin exhibits localized and polarized delivery, and seems to be associated with some form of vesicle mediated transport. These are all common features of neurotransmitter delivery in animals. In my proposed studies, I plan to further explore the properties of the D. peltata mechanoreceptor, using better characterized animal and Venus Fly Trap mechanoreceptors as analogues. The neurobiology of plants is under researched, studies like this one are important in contributing to the understanding of basic mechanisms organisms use in interacting with their environments.