Leaf pattern, auxin levels and more shape grad’s research projects, path to molecular biology career

by | Dec 13, 2016

Stephanie Theiss did research on campus and at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center while also serving as president of the UMSL Biological Society.
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Stephanie Theiss is using her undergraduate research experience, leadership skills and freshly minted UMSL bachelor’s degree in biology to build her future as a molecular biology graduate student and hopefully future Monsanto plant scientist. (Photo by August Jennewein)

When Stephanie Theiss walks across the graduation stage this coming weekend, she’ll have under her belt not only a University of Missouri–St. Louis biology degree but also two undergraduate research experiences, a UMSL Biological Society presidency and an interview at Monsanto.

A Eugene J. Meehan scholar at UMSL, Theiss immersed herself in as many Department of Biology opportunities as she could. But there was once a time when she wasn’t so set on the science field. After graduating from Francis Howell North High School in 2008, Theiss went to St. Charles Community College, where she changed her major from nursing to anthropology. It wasn’t until she worked at EarthDance, an organic farm in Ferguson, that Theiss discovered her calling.

“I heard on the radio they were looking for apprentices, so I went and helped with harvesting and planting,” Theiss said. “I just really liked being outdoors and helping out. That’s when I became more interested in biology and ecology, mainly. I also started to get more serious about school, having found my passion, so I decided to transfer to UMSL.”

At UMSL, Theiss sunk in her roots as a biology major. She joined the UMSL Biological Society, was elected treasurer and eventually stepped into the role of president.

“Our main focus is creating opportunities for undergrads to network and get to know the professors and graduate students in the department who might need help on research projects,” Theiss explained. “We also bring in people from Career Services and sometimes outside speakers to talk about what you can do with your biology degree.”

Theiss wasn’t shy about capitalizing on those opportunities he­­rself. She worked in Professor Bethany Zolman’s lab, researching the plant Arabidopsis and how its hormone auxin is oxidized. Varying levels of auxin in the plant affect growth and development. It’s research that Theiss said can eventually be applied to agriculture. This year, she received a $1,000 College of Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Award to continue her work in the lab and presented at the Undergraduate Research Symposium.

But her research interests didn’t end there. Theiss also picked up a research assistant position at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Principal Investigator Daniel Chitwood’s lab during her time at UMSL. There she helped examine the pattern, thickness and shape of tomato plant leaves, particularly comparing wild tomato relatives to domesticated versions.

“The wild tomato relative has really thick and simple leaves, whereas the domesticated one you see a lot thinner, much more complex leaves,” Theiss said. “It’s interesting to see if there’s any photosynthetic difference or any difference in the amount of fruit that’s produced because of leaf shape.”

Right now the team is trying to identify the gene responsible for leaf differences. Theiss spent her summer narrowing down the search field to a particular segment of the plant’s genome most likely responsible for the variations.

The research is right up her alley, considering Theiss eventually wants to work for Monsanto. The graduate had an interview with the St. Louis agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation last week and is hoping to work there during the period between finishing her undergraduate degree and starting graduate school. Theiss has applied to Washington University in St. Louis, Saint Louis University and UMSL to pursue her doctoral degree in molecular biology in the fall of 2017.

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Marisol Ramirez

Marisol Ramirez

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