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Thursday, May 23, 2019

MAPS Graduate Student teaches "Sunflower Science" to school aged children

Ashlee teaching Sunflower Science at the Kansas Children's Discovery Center
 and how to build a microbiome to 4th graders
     Outreach has always been a passion for Ashlee Herken, a  MAPS graduate student working with Dr. Tom Platt, Assistant Professor of Biology at Kansas State University (KSU) and team leader of the plant systems research group for the Kansas NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 Award OIA-1656006 titled: Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas (MAPS). Part of the reason Ashlee chose to do outreach was because she was "extremely interested in representing women in science, promoting the research at Kansas State University, and supporting science education," plus, she loves "interacting with the children, because they are always extremely eager to learn about science.” In fact, it was her own fond memories of participating in science activities as a child that encouraged her to go into the field of science. Participating in the those interactive activities also contributed to her desire to lead outreach activities; and through her outreach, Ashlee hopes to not only serve as a role model, but also show "kids that science is interesting and that as long as they have a passion they can do whatever they want to do in life!"
     In order to pursue her passion, Ashlee chose to partner with Ms. Caitlin Luttjohann, the director of STEAM education, at the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center in Topeka, KS because “it is a wonderful resource for the children in the area where I live.” In addition to teaching at the Discovery Center, Ashlee also reached out to Mrs. Gretchen Giffin, a teacher at North Fairview Elementary School in Topeka, KS, and has provided interactive science activities for her fourth grade class. The outreach lesson Ashlee teaches involves children building sunflower microbiomes, and this Sunflower Science lesson was derived from her own Master's program research.
Sunflower Science Lesson
      The title of Ashlee’s thesis is Identification and characterization of cooperators and cheaters from natural populations of Agrobacterium tumefaciens at different spatial scales across Kansas, and her research focuses on “isolation and characterization of Agrobacterium tumefaciens, an important member of the root system community of Helianthus annuus, better known as the annual sunflower, across the state of Kansas.” She explained her research as follows: “Agrobacterium tumefaciens is a generalist plant pathogen that is the causative agent of crown gall disease. Within the population of Agrobacterium tumefaciens there are organisms that have the ability to infect the plant and those that just use the nutrients the plant produces for the bacterium these are essentially free-loaders, we call them cheaters. I am particularly interested in the evolution of the cheaters as well as the interactions between different natural isolates and a known pathogenic strain.” She added that the interactive lesson she created is very similar to the activities she does in the lab. Ashlee explained the similarities as follows, “When I go to into the classroom or to the Discovery Center, I have a presentation titled Sunflower Science and the kids build their own sunflower microbiome. At the Discovery Center, they use stickers of different colors and put them on a model sunflower. In the classroom, they used model sunflowers and glue beads to it. The stickers or beads represent the bacteria. I talk about the positive and negative interactions in the rhizosphere and the reasons that bacteria like to live there. I also talk to them about the bacteria that I am interested in and the interactions that it has with other members of the same species and with the plant.”
    Ashlee graduated last May with a Bachelor's of Science degree in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology from Washburn University in Topeka, KS. While pursuing her undergraduate degree, Ashlee worked on several research projects. One of her main projects was “working on the characterization of a Bacillus subtilis phage that was isolated from a farm in SE Kansas.” In addition, Ashlee was involved in a collaborative project between Washburn University and Washington University in St. Louis called The Genomics Education Partnership. It was during this project that she learned to “annotate a portion of the Drosophila eugracilis genome using Drosophila melanogaster as a reference.” During her final semester at Washburn, she had an internship with Dr. Bret Freudenthal's Lab working with one of his graduate students, Matt Schaich, and they tried "to elucidate the structure of the telomerase protein, which could potentially be used in the future as a target for cancer drugs.”
     Ashlee is originally from Oskaloosa, KS, but is currently living in Topeka.  As for her future plans, Ashlee said “I would love to continue doing research after I graduate. Currently, I am looking into different options. When I started graduate school, I was not aware of the wide range of careers that would be available to me after graduation. Ideally, I would love to continue to work with plant associated bacteria and the microbiome.”

Funding for Workforce Development, Education and Outreach in support of graduate students is provided by the Kansas NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 Award OIA-1656006 titled: Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas. The grant's workforce development and educational objectives are designed to enhance STEM education in Kansas by supporting activities that will lead to an expanded STEM workforce or prepare a new generation for STEM careers in the areas of aquatic, plant and soil microbiome environments and ecological systems.