By: Cory Bryant
Conducting research is just as exciting as it is crucial. People form many stereotypes when thinking about lab research. Some of these stereotypes include vivid images of older gentlemen cloaked in florescent white lab coats walking about an eerily sterile laboratory. However, this is seldom reality. While some research is conducted in high-tech labs, often times the research is composed in field studies.
To contradict some of the stereotypes associated with research, we will take a walk through the Mitchell Lab here at UNC-Chapel Hill, and follow a lab member to get an understanding of what it takes to conduct research. The Mitchell Lab, overseen by Dr. Charles Mitchell, is a biological ecology research lab that aims to understand the ecology of infectious disease in plants. Most of the lab work is subdivided into disease ecology research by each lab members. Projects within the Mitchell Lab involve studying plant functional traits, pathogen diversity, and plant invasion.
Kayleigh O'Keeffe has been involved with the Mitchell Lab for two years. She applied to the lab with prior experience in ecology and evolution, and had spent her summer working in a vector borne disease lab at Yale. Her prior background in genetics and evolution corresponded with the ideas of the Mitchell Lab. The research Kayleigh currently conducts can best be described in her own words: “My research will be focusing on one fungal pathogen of tall fescue (a grass) that is facultative, meaning it switches from living off of decaying organic matter in the soil to parasitizing a plant.” Kayleigh’s main goal is to understand what causes the fungal pathogen to become parasitizing and what mechanisms are involved.
A typical field day for Kayleigh happens mostly over the summer, when once a week, starting at 6:20 AM, she travels to the edge of Duke Forest to survey quadrants that are set up. Kayleigh surveys the sites within a larger field site for fungal pathogens lesions and then collects these lesions in order to culture them later in the lab. She will continue this process for a few months until she has enough samples to continue her research. The culturing of the lesions is important in order to isolate the fungal species of interest for downstream genetic analyses. Work within the lab includes data analysis, reading relevant papers, and general genetic protocols.
Working in a research lab at UNC-Chapel Hill is no stroll in the park. Kayleigh describes the workload as the “most intense” during the field season, but varying among different lab members. She explains the importance of her fieldwork in saying, “The rest of the year is spent analyzing or working up samples from the field season, so putting in the work during that time is critical.” Even though the workload may seem overwhelming, being the youngest graduate in the Mitchell Lab does provide its perks. Kayleigh is able to collaborate with other lab members who have been in the lab longer and she uses the knowledge they provide in order help in her research. Additionally, she describes the Research Triangle as a prime location to learn from experts, and the three research universities in the Triangle help in developing her question of interest.
The Mitchell Lab’s research is important because infectious disease is predicted to increase in the future. The disease ecology research system is easily managed and will provide a way for understanding plant disease. Understanding the diseases in plants will provide vital information in agricultural practices, food security measures and many more food implications. “I am very motivated to conduct research that can be applied to societal issues,” says Kayleigh.
Research labs such as the Mitchell Lab are an important part of the science community. Many labs at UNC Chapel Hill, including the Mitchell lab, are important in the understanding and prevention of societal issues. Through research and lab involvement, a better understanding of our ecosystem will help shape a growing world.
To learn more about The Mitchell Lab and their research, visit their website here.