“I used to race my mother to see who could find the pieces that fit the quickest,” the assistant professor of biology in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences recalled. “I remember the satisfaction of finding two pieces that fit together, and then pride when finishing and getting to see the complete picture. Science is a lot like that for me.
“We gather small pieces of information that click together, and, over time, a big exciting picture emerges,” she said. “Unlike the jigsaw puzzle, however, there is no picture on the front of the box to guide you, so that big science picture is even more exciting and more rewarding because it reveals something that no one else knew before – a discovery.”
Armed with that life-long curiosity about how complex puzzles fit together, a professional and personal goal of improving people’s lives through research, and a big new grant from the National Science Foundation, Hawkins is set to unravel the mysteries of how plants use genetically coded information to build protein molecules that affect the way they look and function.
It’s work that could someday lead to a more effective way to grow food or even eliminate birth defects. Hawkins is using the opportunity to tackle a tough puzzle and provide a positive experience for WVU students who are in line to help with the project.
Hawkins works in the world of “genetics” – a term based on an ancient Greek word for “genitive.” The details of her study are just that to most everyday folks: Greek.
Genetics deals with the molecular structure and function of genes, patterns of inheritance from parent to offspring, and gene distribution, variation and change in populations. Because genes are universal to all living organisms, genetics can be applied to the study of all living systems, from viruses and bacteria, through plants and domestic animals, to humans.
Hawkins explained that the complex process whereby information encoded in a gene is processed and used to direct the assembly of the protein molecules that make up the machinery of life is called “gene expression.”
“A key to understanding that process is knowing the underlying mechanisms that alter patterns in gene expression,” Hawkins said. “Little is known about the genetic controls of gene expression, and therefore, what causes variants to arise in a population. That’s what our project is all about.”
Biology professor, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
Hawkins will be working with maize, or corn, to dissect the individual elements that control gene expression through some creative “module swapping” – work that could ultimately lead to improvements in crop yields that could feed more people in a shrinking world.
Along with research assistants like Chelsea Bradshaw who received a WVU biology degree with honors in May, Hawkins will be trudging through her cornfields at the WVU Agricultural Farm to harvest ears of corn that will be closely studied in her WVU Life Sciences laboratory to unlock genetic mysteries.
“This project promises not only intellectual advancement in the fields of molecular and evolutionary genetics, but also the development of a number of possible practical industrial technologies designed to enhance and advance agricultural practices,” Hawkins wrote in her proposal to NSF.
NSF officials agreed and gave a “thumbs up” providing $755,895 for her project over the next three years.
The agricultural benefits of positive results aren’t the only upsides for WVU in the research project, according to Hawkins.
“This project will provide multiple educational opportunities for so many of our students through scientific training in laboratory practices,” she said.
She noted how the project compliments interdisciplinary activities at WVU created in conjunction with its strategic plan that provide opportunities for underrepresented students.
“Our research is designed as part of a WVU computational biology initiative, an interdepartmental effort among the Departments of Biology, Mathematics and Statistics to create an undergraduate program in the emerging field of bioinformatics,” she said.
For Hawkins, the work, and its potential to provide needed answers to mysteries that could improve lives is a “win-win.”
“I was drawn to science because I like the challenge of complex puzzles,” she said. “If I get to help people in the process, then that’s even better.”
CONTACT: Gerrill Griffith, WVU Research Corp.
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