OHIO professor sends seeds to space and conducts educational outreach on Earth

Sarah Wyatt, Professor in Environmental and Plant Biology and Director of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Molecular and Cellular Biology at Ohio University, is recognized as an expert in gravitational and space biology. Using cellular and molecular approaches, she examines how plants sense and respond to gravity.

With such an area of expertise comes a tie to NASA, of course. A pair of research projects conducted by Wyatt have been flown to the International Space Station (ISS).

In early 2015 the OHIO Team Gravitron experiment, a partnership between Wyatt and OHIO graduate students Proma Basu and Colin Kruse, launched into space aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 Dragon Spacecraft. The experiment, titled Biological Research in Canisters-20 (BRIC-20), germinated seeds in space to test protein signals triggered in reaction to a microgravity environment. The project was one of 31 proposals that NASA’s space biology program funded to understand how changes in gravity affect cells, plants and animals.

In 2017 a new NASA-funded experiment in partnership with Chris Wolverton of Ohio Wesleyan University and OHIO graduate student Alexander Meyers launched aboard the Falcon 9. Using the European Modular Cultivation System (EMCS), the project is studying the effects of varying levels of gravity on the growth of plants to find their breakpoint. Placed in growth capsules on a large centrifuge, seedlings are monitored while aboard the ISS through images as they rotate at various speeds that apply different gravitational pulls. The gravity levels of Earth, the moon and Mars are being simulated, among others. Through this experiment Wyatt, Wolverton and Meyers will help determine how much gravity plants can sense and at what point they no longer function. The plants will return to Earth in mid-May to be delivered to Wyatt’s lab for RNA extraction and analysis of the active genes that regulated the growth of each plant group.

Wyatt’s partnership with NASA began in 1996 with ground-based experimental projects through NASA’s life sciences program. Wyatt began her work with the agency while completing postdoctoral research on gravity signaling at North Carolina State. The first grant Wyatt received when she joined the OHIO community was from NASA. That grant funded her first OHIO program, a NASA-sponsored ground-based research program working with gravity-signaling in mutated plants.

However, Wyatt’s work extends far beyond gravitational and space biology. Wyatt puts a strong focus on furthering educational advances and preparing the next generation of educators to do the same. Her work as chair on committees such as the Professional Relations Committee of the OHIO Faculty Senate and the Educational Committee of the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) are very important to her as ways to “pass it down.”

Wyatt believes in making the learning environment a truly interactive experience rooted in activities, events and outreach. Wyatt, dedicated to mentoring her students, believes students need to travel, meet people who will one day be their colleagues and present their work. She often takes students to meetings and conferences she attends to present their research.

“All students work on outreach with me. They all know how important it is to me. I try not to teach in isolation,” Wyatt said.

Wyatt does not limit outreach to her own students and colleagues. Now in its ninth year, the Science Café series was founded by Wyatt through an 1804 grant awarded to her to enhance undergraduate education and increase interest in research. Each café spotlights a faculty speaker and is a venue for students to have an informal conversation with faculty presenters, staff and the community in a friendly setting. Wyatt continues to organize the series.

Wyatt has also worked to bring educational programs to young girls in Appalachia. In 2013 she was awarded a grant from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) to launch Tech Savvy OHIO. Tech Savvy, founded in Buffalo, New York, by AAUW, is a day-long science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) career conference for girls in grades six through nine. The program encourages girls to increase interest in future education and careers in STEM. Conference participants can select from workshops including a fuel cell car race, restoring rusty rivers, information and the Internet, or CSI Athens. A parent or mentor is encouraged to attend an adult program that runs concurrently to help families support students on their path to college and a career. Through Wyatt, the AAUW Athens (Ohio) Branch was in the first group to test the program at an expanded level.

Through varied outreach methods to similarly varied audiences, Wyatt is compelling. “A talk is about building a story for the audience,” she said. “I try really hard to speak at multiple levels. Whatever reason you are here, I want to try to help you understand why this (educational moment) is important.”

Her teaching abilities have been recognized through several awards. Wyatt has received the OHIO Dean’s Outstanding Teacher Award, is a two-time recipient of the OHIO Presidential Teaching Award and was named an OHIO Presidential Research Scholar, just to name a few.

Most recently, she was awarded the Excellence in Education Award from the ASPB, an award that recognizes outstanding teaching, mentoring, and educational outreach in plant biology. Wyatt was recognized for her contributions over several decades to plant biology education at the K-12, undergraduate, and graduate levels; her student mentoring through research; and the science education workshops that she has established and that benefit thousands of under-represented students.

May 8, 2018
Jessica Vierling-West