Undergraduate research in ‘Nature’

PULLMAN – WSU’s commitment to undergraduate education and research paid off recently for former undergrad Kayla Ann Simons. She was one of seven people to be named as authors in Nature, an international journal of science, for her contribution to a WSU research project on disease resistance in plants.
To be named as an author in a scientific journal such as Nature is a great accomplishment for anyone, especially an undergraduate, said Joe Poovaiah, WSU Regents professor and director of the lab in which Simons worked. In his 33 years in the horticulture department, Poovaiah has had many undergraduate students work in his lab, but Simons is the only one who has earned an authorship in a Nature publication.
Simons, 24, is in her second year of study in WSU’s professional pharmacy program. Five years ago, as a WSU Regents Scholar, she was introduced to Poovaiah at freshman summer orientation, thanks in part to her high school science teacher. Poovaiah hired her to work in his laboratory.
Dedication to details
She differed from other students who worked in his lab, Poovaiah said, because she continued working for the entire four years of her undergraduate education. She also showed a commitment to quality that exceeded the average student.
“Her dedication to details got everyone’s attention in the lab,” Poovaiah said. “The challenge of complicated experiments did not scare Kayla.”
She primarily assisted Liqun Du, a research assistant professor working with Poovaiah.
“Liqun is very meticulous. He is very particular that things are done the right way,” Simons said. “But he was always very patient with me. He is an amazing teacher.”
Poovaiah said Simons demonstrated her commitment to learning when she completed WSU’s radiation safety class, which most undergraduates shy away from, he said.
Simons earned a perfect score and became responsible for the safety of other students working with radiation in the lab.
Thirst for knowledge
She received funding from the Center for Integrated Biotechnology, Department of Horticulture and National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates program to continue research through three summers.
Poovaiah said he and his colleagues were able to “nurture Kayla’s talent” while she assisted them in a “world class project” on plant disease resistance.
“I got lab experience before anyone else,” Simons said. “When I took biochem, that lab experience really helped.”
The fact that students get paid to learn makes working in a university laboratory a “win-win” situation, she said. The experience taught her “critical thinking skills that transcend any discipline.”
Simons has yet to decide what she wants to do after graduating with her master’s degree in pharmacy, but she has thought about conducting research in clinical trials with human patients.
“I don’t think my thirst for knowledge will ever be quenched,” she said.
(Joe Pooviah, left, Liqun Du and Kayla Ann Simons with some of the plants that have been the focus of their research on disease resistance. Photo by Robert Hubner, WSU Photo Services.)

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