|The (not-so) sweet smell of summer research
RELEASED: Aug. 12, 2004
DANVILLE, KYMarina Dickens, a rising senior from Lexington, Va., has had an eventful summer. She is researching organic chemistry at the University of Connecticut, and has seenand smelleda very uncommon plant in bloom.
Dickens, a chemistry major, is participating in a Research Experiences for Undergraduates program (REU), which gives students a chance to see what graduate research is about. Her research involves mutating DNA bases by adding a presumed carcinogenic organic group (something that might cause cancer).
"The basis of our experiment is that after this altered version [of the DNA base] is exposed to UV light, it changes its shape or conformation and could cause cancer in cells," she says. "The idea is that if we can make it, we can figure out a way to unmake it."
While Dickens was doing research in the lab, something unusual was happening in the University's greenhouse. Titan Arum, also called the "corpse plant," was blooming.
"The Titan Arum is a plant from Sumatra," Dickens explains. "It's called the corpse plant because it's designed to smell like a rotting carcass. I didn't think it was that bad. It sort of smelled like garbage. Flies and beetles, which lay their eggs in carcasses, are attracted to the plant and thus help pollinate it."
Titan Arum is rare, even in Sumatra, the second largest island in Indonesia. It's more rare to see one in bloom. The University of Connecticut has had the plant for 10 years, and this is the first time it's bloomed. The last time a corpse plant flowered in the northeastern United States was in 1937.
The plant is bigabout five feet talland kept in a pot that's larger than a garbage can. The bloom, which did not fully open, had a diameter of 24 inches before it closed. The rare bloom lasts only a few days.
The REU internship program is funded by the National Science Foundation. Dickens learned of the program through her Centre chemistry professors. She credits Joe Workman and Keith Dunn, associate professors of chemistry at Centre, for writing letters of recommendation for her.
"The entire chemistry department pushes their students to get as much research experience as possible," she says. "There are a lot of opportunities out there."
Dickens plans to attend graduate school and pursue a Ph.D.
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