News Students in the News

September 28, 2017 at 8:54 am

First Fellowship Recipient Honors Passions and Legacy of Norman S. Cohn

By MC Tilton, PACE Writer

Stacy Welker, first Cohn Fellow, discusses her research at the Cohn Symposium, September 22

Stacy Welker had no idea how her passions would blossom when she was just a little girl reading books about animals and evolution given to her by her father.  His stories of local ecosystems and biological processes imparted his “nerdiness” and scientific inclination to her, eventually leading her to pursue a major in environmental and plant biology at Ohio University and become a Norman S. Cohn Research Fellow in Plant Cell and Molecular Biology.

Following a post-high school stint in the U.S. Army, Welker found herself anxious to put plants’ potential for human benefit to use. The Department of Environmental and Plant Biology’s Cohn Fellowship afforded her a stepping-stone to making greater impact as her career unfolds.

“The Cohn Fellowship was a great opportunity for me because I got to work closely with my professor and the graduate students in his lab and learn how to conduct research,” Welker said. “This experience made me sure that graduate school was right for me.”

Welker, who hails from Fort Myers, Florida, performed her fellowship research with Dr. Allan Showalter in Summer 2017 to study the genes and enzymes responsible for adding specific sugar residues to a family of plant cell wall proteins known as the arabinogalactan-proteins. Her work involved identifying genetic mutants in this sugar addition process and then examining the phenotypic characteristics of these mutant plants to elucidate the contribution of these sugars to the function of arabinogalactan-proteins. This research opened her to a budding interest in genetics and plant-pathogen interactions, especially plant diseases caused by bacteria.

“I feel fortunate to be living in a time and place where women are encouraged to follow the career path that will be most fulfilling for them,” Welker said. “I am grateful to the generations of female scientists before me who had to put up with a lot to get to where we are now. We need to continue adding to their achievements.”

Welker said she also feels indebted to the help of PBIO department mentors and peers along the way. “I feel that majoring in environmental and plant biology was the right choice for me, and I was inspired to join research specifically because of the enthusiasm and degree of expertise and knowledge shown by the faculty and graduate students in the department,” she said.

Now that the Cohn Fellowship has confirmed her passions and next career steps, Welker has her sights set on imparting scientific truths to the general population. “I want to be a part of the coming transition in agriculture that has begun thanks to advances in genetics,” Welker said. “I think many people have a negative impression of genetically modified organisms – the reality is, much of biological research today would not be possible without the use of genetically modified organisms. I would like to help change public perception of genetic modification in plants through my work.”

Three OHIO alumni established the fellowship in honor of their late mentor and friend Norman Cohn, distinguished professor emeritus of environmental and plant biology and former botany department and graduate college chair. The Norman S. Cohn Summer Research Fellowship provides funding for an OHIO undergraduate student with a clear academic focus on plant cellular and molecular biology to conduct research with a faculty member who is an expert in this field of study.

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