Graduate student Sarah Knapke uses Arabidopsis, a small weed commonly used in genomics research, to study the evolution of genes in a plant that emerged more than 425 million years ago. This ancient plant is the ancestor of all of today's seed-bearing flora. (Photo by Tom Campbell)
Sarah Knapke's life as a master's degree student working with her mentors has landed her smack dab in the middle of two fascinating projects—exactly where she wants to be.
"I always wanted to be in research," says the 23-year-old Rockville, Ind., native, who started her Purdue University career as an undergraduate pharmacy major. "I was really interested in plant-based pharmaceutical research."
But Knapke's fascination with nature-derived health remedies led her to the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology and molecular geneticist Robert Pruitt. Her senior research project with Pruitt reaffirmed this academic pathway, so Knapke decided to stay on for her master's degree.
A growing number of promising young researchers such as Knapke are pursuing degrees in Purdue Agriculture's graduate programs. "Purdue is training the next generation of thinkers—scientists who will drive innovation and discovery to reshape life sciences, biosecurity, the environment, agriculture and the food system," says Dale Whittaker, associate dean and director of academic programs for Purdue Agriculture.
A key component to their education is the opportunity to participate
in groundbreaking research with faculty mentors. As a member of Pruitt's
research team, Knapke studies genetic evolution and is involved in further
investigation of a gene named HOTHEAD, which controls
organ development, including, for example, the opening of flowers.
In earlier research, a team in Pruitt's lab discovered that some plants apparently bypass genetic abnormalities carried by mutated parents. About 10 percent of the plants seem to follow a hidden template that carries the normal characteristics of their grandparents. This defies the long-held Mendelian theory of how traits are inherited. Media worldwide reported on the findings.
Knapke studies the evolution of HOTHEAD and related genes in an ancient Christmas-tree plant, which emerged more than 425 million years ago and is the living ancestor of all of today's seed-bearing flora.
"I like studying evolutionary plant development," says Knapke of her work comparing the genes of the ancient plant from the family lycophyte, Selaginella moellendorffi, with those of Arabidopsis, a mustard relative commonly used in plant research.
Knapke believes the skills and techniques she's learned during her experience at Purdue will help her pursue a research career in plant-based pharmaceuticals. "There must be some basis for belief by Native Americans and the Chinese in plants as medicine, since they've been used for centuries," she says. "Maybe by doing more research on them, we can develop more natural drugs."
This avenue seems a probable direction for her research. "You have to have some passion for the research project you undertake," she says.