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Going Places

Western student takes her research to Washington, D.C.

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Monica Smith of Western Oregon University is breaking new ground with her advanced plant studies.

By CRAIG COLEMAN

MONMOUTH -- If you understand the research Western Oregon University student Monica Smith has conducted on mesembryathemum crystallinum -- commonly referred to as the "ice plant" -- you probably have a handle on a few biological processes and principles.

Like the difference between plants that perform C3 photosynthesis -- what most plants do to convert the sun's energy into sugar and oxygen -- and crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM), a version used by plants in arid environments.

Or the benefits of antioxidants in battling free radicals, the molecules that oxidize and damage cells and hinder photosynthetic production.

In most instances, however, Smith says it's just easier to tell people that "I work with plants."

"When they ask me and I tell them exactly what I work on, they're just like, 'Oh...well...that's good for you."

During the past year, the senior biology major has studied how certain species can handle periodic water stress in semi-arid regions.

The research earned her the opportunity to present her findings to the Oregon Academy of Sciences in February and to an international conference on CAM in California last year.

In about two weeks, Smith will talk about her work before the Council on Undergraduate Research in Washington D.C. She'll be one of 60 students selected to display posters of their findings at the U.S. Capitol.

Smith's work is a continuation of a body of research started by former students at Western. Smith has taken that research further, said Lonnie Guralnick, a professor of biology at Western and her project mentor.

"This is work that hasn't been done previously," he said. "We're going into areas people haven't looked at with these types of plants."

The knowledge of how certain plants are able to produce food products in dry environments could someday be applied to agriculture in areas where irrigation is a problem, Guralnick said.

Smith, an all-American on Western's track and field team, says she has been "shocked" at how her work has been received.

"When I started, I don't think I had an idea of how big this was going to get, I thought maybe I'd be able to write a research paper on it," she said. "I'm honored, though ... I like that I've done something that other people are interested in."

Biology and science were always among her interests in school but she didn't consider them as a career option, said Smith, who grew up on her parents' sheep farm in Dallas.

"When I got to Western, I thought I would be a psychology major," Smith said. "When I couldn't get the course I wanted, I took an introduction to biology class."

Her passion for science has grown, especially in the field of molecular biology.

"Genetics is something I enjoy," she said. "What interests me is how a DNA molecule can tell you so much about the characteristic of an organism, what it's going to be like and what will be hidden."

In 2003, Guralnick, a biology professor and chairman of Western's science division, approached Smith about doing research on plants that use CAM photosynthesis.

In-depth research on the species, which include pineapples, aloe and the ice plant, is almost nonexistent.

Most plants open their stomata -- the openings on leaves for photosyhthesis -- during daytime. But CAM plants take in carbon dioxide during the evening and store the chemical compound as acid, to be used as a CO2 source in the day.

This can lead to an increase in free radicals, which leads to harmful levels of oxidative products that could damage the plant and its products.

Smith's goal was to find what factors can induce more antioxidant enzymes to detoxify the plant.

Smith grew dozens of ice plants, and analyzed plant samples for acidity -- which takes about three hours -- a few days a week during the school year and regularly during the summer.

"I've probably run 500 samples," she said. "I spend quite a few hours in the lab."

Her regular course load during the school year makes the research schedule difficult, and it gets even more so when track season begins.

Smith, who has excelled as a high jumper and hurdler during her athletic career, is competing in the heptathlon in 2005.

"It takes a toll on how much time to study and how much to work on the project," she said. "You have to have time-management skills ... fortunately, my coaches are understanding and cooperative."

Smith will graduate at the end of the term and head off to Washington State University to earn her master's degree next fall. She said she'd like to continue doing biological research, or maybe become a teacher.

For now, however, she just wants to have her presentation ready for her trip to Washington.

"I'll be talking with senators and congressmen," she said, "trying to explain the research to them."

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