Research experience as an undergrad in Prather lab - Syrena Whitner

I was first introduced to the Prather Laboratory through my Plant Ecology TA -Klara Scharnagl. She needed an undergraduate student to help with her dissertation on lichen diversity gradients. As I was eager to gain lab experience, I decided to pursue the opportunity even though I had no knowledge about lichens.

As an Independent researcher: My first experiences within the lab involved becoming proficient in fundamental laboratory skills such as DNA extractions and PCR of isolated regions of fungal DNA. Once I became confident in my new skills, Klara proposed the creation of my own independent research project for the following year. At this time, some new and extremely fascinating discoveries were being made regarding the lichen symbiosis, so we decided to further investigate. The project focused on the presence of basidiomycete yeasts, functioning presumably as a “third partner” within the lichen cortex, and whether their presence has an effect on secondary metabolite production. Fast forward two years; I have spent countless hours alongside Klara diving deep into lichen diversity, partner specificity, and secondary metabolite composition as it relates to this “third partner” yeast. The project spanned the course of a year and a half, and has led to the current pursuit of publication.

Skills developed: One of the most important takeaways from my experience in the Prather lab, besides my ever growing knowledge on lichen biology, was how to function independently and efficiently within a laboratory environment as if I were a graduate student. I was expected to work independently on developing the big ideas for my project, with excellent mentoring from Klara along the way. I learned how to think outside the box, dig deep into literature, utilize external resources, develop presentation skills, and write scientific literature. To me, these are skills that are harder to learn within the classroom, and have therefore given me a performance edge within the laboratory today. This research project was my first real hands-on experience within a laboratory, and truly paved the way for the opportunities that followed. Through the guidance of both Klara and Dr. Prather, I was able to reach ambitious goals and produce some exciting data regarding the relationships between the basidiomycetes and the primary lichen symbionts; information that will hopefully aid future lichenologists in their studies as well!

Future plans: My overall experience in the Plant Biology department and Herbarium was great - especially Dr. Prather, Klara, and Dr. Fryday. I am currently in California working at Scripps Institution of Oceanography within the center for marine biotechnology and biomedicine on a project that involves full genomic sequencing using nanopore technology. I am taking a gap year to work/travel, and then am planning on applying to a PhD program for fall 2021!