Research Award Honors Postdoc's Memory

Undergraduate Students Treasure Time in PMB Labs

Researcher Chihiro Hirai and Principal Investigator Mary WildermuthIn a continuing tradition of inspiring undergraduate laboratory research, the Department of Plant & Microbial Biology recently recognized the accomplishments of two Cal undergrads who are performing breakthrough work in the area of improved nutrition for an important African crop, and plant resistance to disease.

The work is supported by a special grant named in honor of Dr. Shibo Zhang, a former postdoctoral fellow in the department, who was killed in a tragic accident three years ago. The grant is administered via the College of Natural Resources SPUR Program -- Sponsored Projects for Undergraduate Research.

Zhang worked with many undergraduates in the laboratories of Lewis Feldman and Peggy Lemaux at PMB. "We thought this was a fitting honor in his memory," Lemaux said. The department greatly encourages undergraduate research and hosts a numer of different opportunities for undergraduate students to gain hands-on experience in PMB laboratories.

Improving Nutrition in African Food Crop

Sangita Annamalai, undergrad, and Peggy Lemaux, Principal InvestigatorSangita Annamalai is a junior majoring in Molecular Environmental Biology and minoring in Toxicology. She has always been interested in genetics and how science can be used to improve public health.

"She wanted an opportunity to be involved in projects that she thought would make a difference in people's lives, and she got that opportunity," Lemaux said.

Annamalai is trying to develop a model C4plant system to be used for investigating gene function in C4 plants like sorghum. The goal is to improve the nutritional quality of the crop, a major food source in sub-Saharan Africa.

Annamalai immediately showed initiative, reading papers and independently corresponding with another scientist doing similar research at Cornell.

"Although it was not my intention to have her work on this project by herself, she just took the challenge on and showed a great deal of independence in figuring out what to do and how to do it," Lemaux said.

"With limited funding for plant biology research, it's extraordinary to have these resources to engage undergraduate researchers, in a situation that is invaluable both for the project and for the individual," Lemaux said. The award has encouraged Annamalai to take initiative and be independent. Opportunities like this give students freedom and independence, while still fostering motivation to work hard during the semester to achieve defined research goals, Lemaux said.

Research in Wildermuth Lab 

Chihiro Hirai, senior Microbial Biology majorChihiro Hirai, a senior Microbial Biology major and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender minor, has grown greatly as a scientist during her almost three years in the lab of Principal Investigator Mary Wildermuth.

"Chihiro has been fundamental to a recent big discovery in the lab, that powdery mildew fungi induce an alternate primary metabolic pathway in the host plant," Wildermuth said. Powdery mildews, often observed on rose leaves, also infect the leaves and/or fruit of a variety of economically important plants including grapevines, strawberries and wheat.

"Because powdery mildews are obligate biotrophs that can only grow on the plant from which they get all their nutrients, if we can limit their nutrient supply from the plant, we can limit their growth and reproduction as Chihiro has shown," Wildermuth said.

Hirai has mastered a variety of molecular biology and genetic approaches while in the lab, operating largely independently.  In addition, she reads primary scientific literature and has an impressive grasp of the material,” Wildermuth said. Even though she is an undergraduate, she received 2nd prize for “best student poster” at a recent PMB department retreat.

College of Natural Resources Award, Supported by Alumni

Both students benefitted from the Sponsored Project in Undergraduate Research (SPUR) award from an endowed fund created in Shibo Zhang's honor. The competitive program encourages faculty and undergraduate students in the College of Natural Resources to collaborate on research projects by providing funds to support their joint project. Faculty particularly appreciate the award because the money can be used for supplies for research. The amount is generally $500, is given on a semester basis, and provides the perfect entree for aspiring researchers.

"Because of the expense of supplies associated with molecular biological research, it is critical to have these funds to support undergraduate researchers, providing opportunities that might otherwise be unavailable,” Wildermuth said.  

“SPUR both facilitates a hands-on real world research experience for undergraduates as well as building a community of undergraduate researchers to share ideas, techniques, and findings,” Hirai said.  “I feel so fortunate to have had this experience."

The Shibo Zhang Endowed Fund

Shibo Zhange Endowed Fund logoThe Shibo Zhang Fund will support a number of CNR students in perpetuity, under the "you can Help Undergraduate students (HUGS)" program which encourages undergrads to discover their passion for research. When Zhang, a married father of two, passed away, Lemaux and Zhang’s family decided to use the money given by his friends and colleagues to establish this endowment in his memory. It is a fitting tribute for Shibo Zhang, who considered it a privilege to work with CNR’s undergraduates in his research.

Important Links

Sponsored Program for Undergraduate Research

College of Natural Resources

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