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The School of Biological Sciences SBS Stories

Cousins Lab Collaborates on $16 million DOE Grant

By: Sophia O’Brien

A School of Biological Sciences research lab, the Cousins Lab, was part of a multi-institutional team awarded a $16 million, five-year grant from The U.S. Department of Energy. The grant was lead by PIs in the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center with the aim to enhance sorghum for bioenergy.

The research teams are hoping to answer if sorghum (a drought and heat resistant grass) that can be further enhanced to increase photosynthesis and water use efficiency. The project aims to deliver stress-tolerant sorghum lines, addressing the DOE’s mission of renewable energy sources.

Dr. Asaph Cousins’ team will be focusing on biochemistry and detailed leaf level physiology. The team’s research will begin with screening for natural diversity in photosynthetic water use efficiency using stable carbon isotopes. They are trying to identify genetic controls of water use efficiency by screening populations of sorghum and mapping these traits to identify their genetic control. They are also taking a focused look on how enzyme activity and kinetics control rates and efficiencies of photosynthesis, and how they may be influencing differences in photosynthetic water use.

Dr. Cousins and his team at WSU are one of six multi-disciplinary teams. The other teams are from the Donald Danforth Center, the Carnegie Institution of Science, University of Rhode Island, University of Illinois, University of Minnesota, and the United States Department of Agriculture. The teams bring together a range of specialties from plant physiology, genetics, molecular biology, informatics, computational biology, and genetic engineering. The WSU includes one graduate student and one postgraduate student, and they are looking to add one more graduate student.

“It’s exciting to have five years of funding and to be able to pursue questions that we might not be able to otherwise in a short time frame. It also provides opportunities to collaborate with other areas of plant sciences and address these research questions from multiple perspectives and angles. This is a very interdisciplinary project”, said Dr. Cousins.

Large research grants like these are furthering WSU’s goal of drive to 25, to become one of the top research institutes in the nation by 2030.

SBS Welcomes New Faculty

By: Sophia O’Brien

School of Biological Sciences is excited to have Dr. Heather Watts joining us at our Pullman location. Dr. Watts specializes in behavior ecology and behavioral endocrinology, focusing on songbirds as models for her research. One of the songbirds is th

e pine siskin, which is found here locally. She’s looking forward to being close to her research subjects. She has lived all over the country getting her B.S. at Duke University and her Ph.D. from Michigan State University. WSU has a tradition of great research on avian biology; Dr. Watts aspires to continue that and to share her research with the community. She hopes that her students come away from her courses with a better understanding of how to think like a scientist and to approach questions scientifically. One of her goals is to help students connect what is being taught in her courses to their everyday lives. They’ll leave her courses more informed about the topics that are relevant for their lives today or in the future.

Tri-Cities WSU School of Biological Sciences is happy to have Dr. Tanya E. Cheeke as a new addition to their team. Dr. Cheeke is looking forward to getting her new lab set up and helping to train students in ecological research. She specializes in ecology and evolution of plant-mycorrhizal interactions within the context of a changing environment through disturbance, climate, or biological invasions. She’s from Corvallis, Oregon with a B.S. from The Evergreen State College, a Ph.D. from Portland State University, and post-doctoral training at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and at Indiana University. Being from the Pacific Northwest, she is excited for to the research opportunities in this region. Dr. Cheeke hopes to impart a love of science and an appreciation for the natural world through her courses. Her teaching methods include hands-on research opportunities in her classes to help prepare students for graduate school and a career in science. Her future projects include examining microbiomes of grapes and hops, and using symbiotic fungi to help native plants get re-established in the Palouse prairies.

WSU Pullman School of Biological Sciences is eager to welcome Dr. Wes Dowd to campus. Dr. Dowd is a comparative animal physiologist, primarily interested in environmental effects on how animals work. He specializes in studying animals that live in very variable environments, like the rocky intertidal zone on the coast where temperature, pH, oxygen, and other variables can change dramatically throughout the day. He grew up in Virginia, spending his summers on the Chesapeake Bay, which is where he first developed an interest for marine life. Dr. Dowd just moved to Pullman after spending 13 years in central and southern California. He is looking forward to building up his lab group with undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs. Being a member of the WSU community, he hopes to bring new opportunities for students and others to engage in marine-oriented research and education. He thinks that as a citizen and patron to the scientific enterprise, everyone should appreciate the value of studying and understanding the natural world beyond us. Some of the most important discoveries that pertain to the human condition start with descriptions of unusual observations in non-human systems. He also believes that there is inherent value in biological research even if it doesn’t directly benefit humans, and that we don’t always know how important scientific discovery is until later on.