Budding researchers: student research leads to botany breakthrough


To most people, Saponaria officinalis is just a weed. To Sandy Davis and Shabnam Jabbari, it’s a goldmine.

For the past several years, Professor Davis and a succession of student researchers at UIndy have studied the plant, known informally as Bouncing Bet, and have discovered some groundbreaking information. They were the first researchers to recognize that S. officinalis changes color as it transitions from male to female.

“Our findings have never been published or documented before,” says Jabbari. “We are the first people to have our name on this research, and that’s really cool.”

Jabbari transferred to UIndy in 2008 and was interested in doing research. After taking a genetics course taught by Davis, Jabbari asked if they could work on a research project together. Davis had just published “Potential for mixed mating in the protandrous perennial Saponaria officinalis (Caryophyllaceae)”  in the journal Plant Species Biology, with the help of student Laurah Turner, and needed someone to take her place when Turner graduated. Jabbari jumped at the opportunity.

“I’m not interested in going into a botany field,” Jabbari explains, “but I was very excited to have the opportunity to do research as an undergrad, and I found the subject matter to be very intriguing.”

She and Davis set out to study S. officinalis to analyze environmental and genetic differences among the plants and to figure out why the flower changed color from white to pink.

Patience pays
For the next two and a half years, Jabbari and Davis worked. They studied the pollen tube formation under the microscope. They grew plants and endured sweltering summer days outside in the garden. They sat for endless hours to watch bees and moths pollinate the flowers to calculate how many visits each flower received. And they documented that the color change is the result of the flower transforming from male to female. Finally, at the end of all their work, they had some never-before-seen research. They spent the greater part of a year compiling all their research into a publication and a presentation. Davis even allowed Jabbari to be the first author on the report, which is a rare opportunity for an undergrad.

“This was the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Jabbari, who completed her studies in December. “Students usually don’t have published work until they are working on PhDs, not at the undergrad level. And I’m so happy that it helped to get UIndy’s name out there in the research field.”

Research buzz
In addition to compiling the report, Jabbari and Davis presented at three conferences, including a poster presentation at the 2010 annual Botanical Society of America conference in Providence, Rhode Island, last fall. And to cap off all their hard work, Davis, Jabbari, and fellow student coauthor Emily Carter recently found out that their paper, “The interaction between floral color change and gender transition in the protandrous weed Saponaria officinalis,” was accepted for publication in Plant Species Biology.

And the research will continue. Carter and Davis will work more with S. officianalis to determine whether males are turning into females and reproducing, which could be a genetic disaster. With publication of their research looming, Jabbari has her sights set on medical school and becoming a doctor.

“You just don’t learn the practice of science until you do it,” she says. “You learn so much more if you just jump in and try. You get the chance to learn and practice techniques from a professor. And before you know it, you’ve created a project and collected data and are doing real research. You’ve become a true scientist.”