The Budding Life of a Researcher

Growing up, I never had a real affinity towards plants. I had no green thumb whatsoever, and neither did anyone in my family. Any attempts made in growing plants whether it be in school projects or for myself usually resulted with a unwatered withered corpse. It was with this mindset that I approached my now mentor Jason Johns in the Hodges Lab. At the time, I saw this as an opportunity to reconnect with nature. With trepidation, I now stepped forward into a project that would have me help to grow ~350 plants known as Aquilegia Jonesii. In hopes of finding the genetic basis of alpine adapted dwarfism in the species. The purpose of this is to one day avoid the problem of lodging. Lodging is something that occurs when a plant grows too tall and tips over itself. As a result, the plant dies and a bunch of resources have now been wasted in helping the plant grow to adulthood.

Now, the big hurdle is to extract the DNA from the plants and to sequence every single one. To do this, I take some leaves from the plant, preferably younger, since it is easier to break down plant tissue in younger plants. Afterwards, I place the leaves in a tube along with some metal balls and freeze them using liquid nitrogen. I break down the tissue with a machine called a bead beater. Then, I add a solution and centrifuge it to place all the plant material at the bottom and suck up the liquid goodies left up top. Unfortunately, this includes DNA, proteins, and others. So, to isolate DNA I add magnetic beads and proceed to hit the solution with a mix of chemical washes in hopes of isolating the DNA. Finally, I add water along with the magnetic beads, which have the negatively charged DNA attached. The water having a higher charge than the magnetic beads, pulls the DNA. Finally, we have our isolated DNA. Afterwards, I take a small amount of DNA and i quantify the amount of DNA in ng per mL of solution. To do this I add a solution to the DNA and take it to a machine which spits out the concentration. This has mainly consisted of my lab work thus far. However, a majority of my time has been spent caring for my plants. I have had to clean them up, re-pot them, and tag them. While this may not seem like a lto this has easily been what I have spent most of my time on. I have washed around ~300 pots and spent hours carefully transporting each plant into bigger pots. I make it a habit to go to the green house once a day to check on them and just to admire their beauty. If I am being completely honest this has been one of the most satisfying parts of my research.

Caring for these plants is truly something special and I would never give it up. Recently, one of my plants have flowered. Knowing that I have aided in their development also makes me feel almost accountable for them. I have this connection to every single one of them, that brings me a peculiar warmth seeing them grow larger everyday. One day, I hope to bloom as beautifully as this plant, and become a full fledged researcher. Until then, I continue to happily work in the Hodges’ lab.

Diego Orellana

Diego Orellana is a rising sophomore at UC Santa Barbara. He likes reading poetry, gaming, and growing plants. He was born and raised in LA for most of his life until he came to UCSB to study biology. He currently works in an EEMB lab with Professor Hodges.