Though still an undergraduate, Nikisha Patel has already made an impression on the world of botany. Patel was recently named a winner of a 2011 Young Botanist Award from the Botanical Society of America, one of about 30 students chosen nationally for this recognition, which is usually restricted to graduating seniors.
Patel, who has just completed her junior year, is in the Honors Program, majoring in biology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. A native of Avon, Conn., she originally chose UConn because of its size – it’s big – and because of the wide variety of courses and majors in the sciences.
“I knew I wanted to do something in life sciences, but I wasn’t sure what area I really wanted to get into,” Patel says, “and I wanted to have the option of changing my mind. UConn gave me a lot of flexibility to choose among things that interested me.”
As an honors scholar, she is required to complete a thesis or project related to her major. She was open to suggestions and, at the urging of another student, she approached Professor Greg Anderson to ask about the possibility of doing some work in his lab. That’s when the metaphorical clouds parted and she discovered the intriguing world of botany.
Anderson, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in CLAS, is an expert in several areas, including pollination and reproductive biology, island botany, and conservation botany.
One of his research projects includes the study of a very rare member of the nightshade family, Solanum conocarpum, that is found in the wild only on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. “It’s in the genus of potato and tomato, and its species name, ‘conocarpum,’ comes from the fact the fruit is conical,” says Anderson. “I’ve been working on it because I’m interested in how plants become established, and how they proliferate and survive in island settings.”
An interesting fact about the solanum is that its flowers are morphologically hermaphroditic, as are most plants. However functionally, the plant is dioecious. That is, despite outward appearances, each individual plant possesses a reproductive structure that is either functionally male or functionally female. According to Anderson, only about 6 percent to 8 percent of all plants fall into this category, and the fact that there are only about 250 of this particular species known to be growing in the wild on St. John, and about 100 plants in the EEB greenhouse (grown from seeds collected from wild fruits), makes this a truly rare botanical combination.
“The dioecy was completely unexpected in the solanum,” says Anderson, “because when you look at the flowers you see that there are male parts and there are female parts. It is the close examination and functional studies that show there are a number of subtle features that indicate the plant’s true sexuality. So I have Nikisha working on that project, and she’s getting a lot of research experience that she can carry with her when she goes on to grad school.”
Both Anderson and Kent Holsinger, Patel’s honors academic advisor, say they are impressed with her intellectual curiosity and tireless work ethic. Holsinger, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said in his letter of nomination for the Young Botanist Award, “Her coursework has been exemplary, but many students who do well in courses fail in independent research. Nikisha excels in both. I now see firsthand why Greg has raved about her aptitude for research. She is among the most talented undergraduates I’ve had the pleasure of working with in my 25 years here.”
After attending the annual meeting of the Botanical Society of America in St. Louis in early July, Patel is off to South Africa, thanks to a Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF) grant.
She will be one of two undergraduate students working with a research team headed by principal investigator Carl Schlichting, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who is studying how plants are affected by climate change. Her work this summer will involve recording physiological characteristics of leaf samples and measuring rates of photosynthesis.
Faced with a growing résumé and widening exposure to career options in the biological sciences, Patel will have some decisions to make as she enters her senior year at UConn. As to her future, she says, “I might want to teach. I’ve talked with Dr. Anderson about it, and right now I think that’s what I want to do, but everyone tells me there may be plenty of surprises ahead, so I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.”