ST. BONAVENTURE, NY — St. Bonaventure University has received a $650,000 National Science Foundation grant that will lead to greater research opportunities for undergraduate students at the university and STEM career training for teachers and students across Western New York.

As part of the four-year grant, undergraduate students will investigate the mechanisms of disease resistance in plants.

The project, titled “Alternative splicing in the regulation of plant innate immunity,” is under the direction of Dr. Xiao-Ning Zhang, director of the Biochemistry Program at St. Bonaventure, and Dr. Hua Lu, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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St. Bonaventure is the lead institution for the NSF award. This is recognition, Zhang says, “of the high quality of research we do with our undergraduate students on campus and of our successful collaborations with other research facilities.”

“We are very pleased and proud that our faculty, under the leadership of Dr. Zhang, have garnered this National Science Foundation grant,” said Dr. Joseph E. Zimmer, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at St. Bonaventure. “Not only will the grant provide learning and research opportunities for our students, local high school students, prospective STEM students, local teachers and the community, but it has the exciting outcome of adding to worldwide understanding of diseases in plants, especially food plants.”

Plant diseases threaten crop yield and lead to billions of dollars of losses each year worldwide. This project will reveal the molecular basis governing the interplay between RNA (Ribonucleic acid) alternative splicing and plant defense. This will contribute to the understanding of plant defense mechanisms and eventually aid the development of strategies to improve crop plants with better-balanced growth and defense and, ultimately, with higher productivity.

Strong evidence from previous research undertaken by Zhang and Lu indicates that a splicing regulator, SR45, acts as a suppressor of innate immunity in the Arabidopsis plant, a model organism widely used in the research community. This project aims to explain how SR45 regulates plant innate immunity, a novel role of the gene that has never been characterized before.

“Dr. Zhang continues to develop and produce high impact research, and this NSF award is validation of those efforts,” said Dr. Dave Hilmey, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the university. 

“She is a leading expert in plant genetics and SR45 and our students are extremely fortunate to work on such timely and important research with a true leader in this field. In addition, Dr. Zhang always finds opportunities to bring her research into educational arenas, including high schools and underrepresented groups. Thanks to Dr. Zhang, St. Bonaventure continues to be a leader in STEM outreach and research and teaching in biology,” Hilmey said.

In addition to the plant research, the NSF-funded project will also be used as a platform to engage undergraduate students, K-12 teachers and high school students from rural Western New York, including the Native American population, in a series of STEM career readiness training exercises in the summer that can be replicated at other undergraduate institutions.

Some research components of the project will be integrated in classroom teaching and laboratory investigations as the project aims to increase students’ competencies for future careers in the STEM fields. Teaching materials developed as part of the project will be made available for others to adapt and/or adopt.

The project will provide a number of opportunities for science majors at St. Bonaventure beyond the hands-on research.

“This will raise student profiles significantly when they participate in this research project and co-author publications in well-known journals,” Zhang said. “Regardless what career tracks students take in the future, authorships like this provide concrete evidence of the strong scholarship potential in the biological sciences.”

Zhang’s lab has already established an excellent track record for undergraduate student-authored publications in the past five years; this grant will augment that.

The award also provides funds for students to work as research assistants throughout the year and travel to international conferences. 

“Now, even more St. Bonaventure students will benefit from these valuable training opportunities,” Zhang said.

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