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Julian Liber: Undergrad research opportunities

Julian Liber is a senior in the Honors College, majoring in plant biology with a minor in computational mathematics, science and engineering in the College of Natural Science.

I came to MSU knowing that I wanted to do research in plants — something I had always been interested in, and I had even done some research in high school pertaining to plant biology. Through the Honors College, I participated in the Professorial Assistantship Program, in which I could work with a faculty member at no cost to him or her.

After talking to the chairperson of the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, I reached out to Dr. Greg Bonito, whose research group studies the ecology, evolution and applications of fungi, as well as their interactions with plants, bacteria and algae. This field was totally new to me, but I fortunately had a postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Alessandro Desirò, to mentor me in the lab.

I have really enjoyed working with fungi because of the huge diversity they possess and how much there is to discover about them. In a single gram of soil, there can be hundreds of species — many unknown to science. In one project, I assisted in describing one of these new species. Plus, I even got a published paper from it!

This past year, I worked on a team of eight undergraduate students from a variety of backgrounds on a project for the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition. iGEM is about engineering organisms, using molecular biology techniques and creating a registry of DNA parts, to do something useful for the world. The 2018 competition drew more than 300 teams from 42 countries, including high school, undergraduate and graduate teams.

Our team’s project involved taking the bacteria found in the roots of grasses, adding a trait which could help plants tolerate stress and reintroducing the bacteria into the roots of model grass species. We were able to show that our bacteria could grow into the plant’s root and stay there for at least four weeks. Unfortunately, we did not have time to study the effect on the plant’s health.

The iGEM project was the first opportunity I had where I could work to coordinate all the aspects of a scientific project: brainstorming, development, planning, troubleshooting, analyzing data and presenting. The competition also involved other aspects, such as collaborating with other teams, reaching out for community feedback and rigorous safety protocols. It allowed my team and I to take chances on an ambitious project and discover some cool results in the end.