Sarah Glenn, a seventh-year graduate student, research assistant and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, loves studying relationships.
As a matter of fact, she’s something of a matchmaker. She helps establish the mutually nurturing relationship between bacteria and alfalfa sprouts. She creates the conditions that are just right to bring the two together in a Petri dish and then sits back and waits for the results.
"You have your alfalfa root, and there are very tiny root hairs that help to bring in the nutrients and the water from the soil. When they interact with bacteria, these root hairs curl – they actually move upon themselves – and trap the bacteria within them. Then the bacteria send signals to the plant, and the plant will start changing itself in a way that it will develop a nodule. It is a type of organ that houses the bacteria within it.
"It's like a little factory,” Sarah said. “The bacteria, once inside, can take nitrogen from the air and fix it into a useable form for the plant. In return, the plant provides a nutrient for the bacteria to live within them.
"When you have a symbiotic relationship like this between a plant and bacteria, you don't need fertilizer. The bacteria provide the natural fertilizer for the plant.”
The joys of research
As a research assistant to Associate Professor Juan Gonzalez, Ph.D., Sarah not only shares his fascination with bacteria, she considers him something of a role model as well.
“I hope to take after Dr. Gonzalez. He's really engaging, and he's involved with the community, and he seems to have a lot going. I don't know how he does it all. But I would hope to be able to do something like that.”
Sarah described being a research assistant as one of the best parts of pursuing her Ph.D.
"I like research. When I leave, hopefully I'll get a job in academia where it's more research and a little less teaching. If not, that's all right. But I really like the interaction of the people within the lab.
"As a teaching assistant, you'll do your research within the lab, but you also have obligations to assist the professor in a certain course, whether it's a workshop or a lab. You grade papers, help with the lectures and help run the lab. You do get a chance to work with a lot of undergraduates.
"As a research assistant, you don't have to worry about teaching responsibilities. You just come in and do your research.
"I'm so glad to come here. I think the majority of it has to do with the lab that I'm working in. I'm very happy with Dr. Gonzalez's lab. The facilities here are great. The working environment is wonderful. I love the project that I am working on. All of that has been very good,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean that everything has come easily for Sarah.
“The first-year core courses were a very tough experience,” Sarah said, “but I'm very glad I went through that. I feel that because I went through that I can do anything. It was a rough time. But the core courses are very good. They prepare you for basic science. You take genetics, you take biochemistry. You take a physical chemistry course and a cell biology course. So you are pretty well-rounded in all those fields.”
Sarah said her start at UTD was a bit bumpy, but now that she’s a research assistant, she can see light at the end of the tunnel.
The road ahead
"I'm kind of one of those special cases,” she said. “When I entered the university, I was not full-time. I was only part-time. I didn't have stipend status, so I was not a teaching assistant when I first came here. Because of the out-of-state tuition, I couldn't afford it. I worked part-time and took part-time classes, so it took me two years to get the core classes in. And then I went up for the evaluation and then was able to move. So when I graduate, it will have taken me about seven years.
"I'm getting closer to writing my dissertation. Part of the program requirement is that you have to publish at least one paper. I hope to publish more than that. I'm aiming for about three. I'm working on several different projects.
"I'm lucky enough to have two McDermott Scholars working in the lab, Morgan Feeney and Chris Affolter,” Sarah said. “Both are helping me out on two independent projects. It's nice that I get to work with them. I get to feel like a mentor to them and teach different techniques and protocol. It's fun to have that interaction.
"This summer, hopefully, I'll be doing a lot of writing and finishing up all my projects I have going here and hopefully start interviewing for a post-doc.
“What I'm working on is the answer to the question, ‘How does the plant recognize the bacteria as being good bacteria, not pathogenic or infectious?’ And I want to understand the signals that the plant and bacteria use to talk with one another and how the bacteria are able to get from a soil environment into the plant, into its home, which is a nodule,” she said.
"It's interesting to me,” Sarah said, “because when I graduate I want to do a post-doc and stay in the academia field. I have always been interested in this communication between bacteria and something of a higher nature, such as a mammalian host or even a plant host. Hopefully, I’ll go into something in the pathogenic field, like salmonella -- people get food poisoning and things like that. Symbiosis and pathogenesis are not that different.”
Is it getting better?
Sarah went on to explain that assistantships have changed a great deal recently.
“It's actually changed a lot over the years. [The] Biology [Department] was pretty crucial in making the change,” Sarah said, citing the efforts of UTD President Franklyn Jenifer. “In the beginning, the university couldn't pay for graduate tuition. So your stipend went toward that and also the insurance and other things. Now they are starting to pay more for the tuition and for the insurance as well. The pay is for my living expenses.
"It's definitely a consideration when you are looking into where you are going to graduate school because Texas institutions typically didn't pay for your tuition,” she said.
Sarah cited UTD’s history and reputation for excellence as part of what drew her here for her graduate studies.
"I zoomed in specifically on UTD because it is well known as a research institution. That's how it began and it's only recently that it admitted undergraduates and became a full-fledged university. The research aspect is what drew me in.
"I think a big plus for this department is that it's small. So you get to know the faculty members fairly well. There is a lot of good interaction between the students and the professors.
"I also like that fact that when you come in you have the opportunity to do two or three lab rotations. So you get a chance to work in different labs to try to find what it is you're interested in working in and who you are compatible with.
"It's nice that the department has such a wide range of choices, and hopefully they will expand more and have a greater diversity among the faculty members.”
- Updated: February 6, 2006