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Willamette Student Earns Doctoral Fellowship for Plant Research

How can crops survive and still be productive in countries with harsh, warm climates? Or if global warming does occur, what will happen to plants struggling to grow in hotter temperatures?

These are the questions Malia Dong '06 has been asking during her time studying biology at Willamette. And now Dong will take her plant molecular biology research to Michigan State University, where she was awarded a University Enrichment Fellowship through the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory. She was one of just 20 among the incoming class of about 500 doctoral students at Michigan State to be chosen for the fellowship. Michigan State has one of the premier plant biology graduate programs in the U.S.

Dong says Michigan State has multiple labs examining different aspects of ecological stress on plants, and she'll decide which labs to work in once she arrives. "They're really good there at letting you explore and not tying you down to a certain type of research right away," she says.

Dong's research focuses on Nicotiana glauca, or tree tobacco. Previous work led by biology Professor Gary Tallman showed that tree tobacco guard cells survive at higher temperatures, Dong says. An ongoing project at Willamette is trying to determine how these cells are able to survive at high temperatures when most other plant cells die. Dong decided to examine one specific plant hormone called auxin. At lower temperatures, the plants cannot survive without auxin, but at higher temperatures, they do fine without it, Dong says. She wants to know why this happens.

She worked with Tallman through the Science Collaborative Research Program, a Willamette program that allows undergraduates to collaboratively research with faculty members. Dong's research was funded by the Arthur Wilson Fellowship at Willamette, for female students who plan to pursue graduate studies in molecular biology.

Dong didn't know research would be her passion when she first decided to major in biology. She thought she might be a high school teacher. "But after I started doing research, I discovered I enjoyed that," she says. "I was kind of surprised. Research is very different than doing a biology lab in school. With research, there's no wrong answer. You're always asking questions about why this is working, or why this is not working."

Science isn't Dong's only passion. She also has an artistic side, which she demonstrates through dance. Growing up in Kaneohe, Hawaii, not far from Honolulu, she learned various forms of Chinese dance. She traveled to China to share her dancing, and competed in Chinese dance through high school. When she came to Willamette, Dong joined the dance team, and she has been captain for two years.

Dong never expected that her college career would take her into a biology lab to examine the cells of plants, but now her research has seeped its way into the rest of her life. "I notice my surroundings more," she says. "I'll notice when plants are sick, or I'll try to quiz myself when I'm walking home past the Capitol, to see if I can recognize the plants."