Kristen Porter-Utley's Labor of Love
Botanist Kristen Porter-Utley has a passion for research and teaching
– and for passionflowers.
When you're passionate about your research and you're passionate about teaching students through research, you can't do much better than to be in a place that encourages both. Especially when your passion is passionflowers.
Associate professor of biology Kristen Porter-Utley began her love of plants as a child in Florida.
"When I was a little girl," she explained, "I would take long walks with my parents and spend time examining the plants and other organisms we discovered along our way. I remember, in particular, seeing my first passionflower. It was a vine that produced intricate, brightly colored flowers that were the size of an adult's hand. I was impressed with them and with the bees and butterflies that were interacting with them. As I learned more about passionflowers, I realized the important roles they play in different tropical ecosystems. Passionflowers quickly became my favorite plants."
When Dr. Porter-Utley went on to study evolution and plant biology, her professor told her she needed a research project. "What's your favorite group of plants?" he asked. "Passionflowers!" was the ready answer.
"I started working on passionflowers as a graduate student," explained Dr. Porter-Utley. "They're really interesting; they have all these really cool relationships with pollinators: birds, bats, insects. They have a fascinating co-evolutionary relationship with a group of butterflies. Passionflowers have medicinal uses, and they're economically important to the ornamental-plant industry. They're where we get passionfruit juice. I studied a small group of these flowers during my graduate work, and I've continued to work with them since receiving my Ph.D.
"During the summer of 2008, I spent three weeks in Mexico and Guatemala, collecting passionflowers and observing the organisms that interact with them. The material that I collected is now being used for the molecular aspect of a National Science Foundation-funded project. I'm currently working with five undergraduate students at KSC in my research lab. They are extracting DNA from plants and sequencing different genes from the chloroplasts and nuclei of the species that I collected in Mexico.
"Some of the best teaching I do takes place in the research lab. The students I work with there start to take ownership of the project and of their education. Being involved in undergraduate research has made a big difference in some of my student's lives, and they learn a whole set of skills that they don't necessarily get in the classroom. Many think that research and teaching are different and separate endeavors. I believe that my work with undergraduates in the research lab is just a different type of teaching, and I find it very rewarding."
The lab experience and skills that students get from doing serious research serves them well as they move on in their careers. As an example, Dr. Porter-Utley told of John Gibbons '05, a student she worked with on a molecular project during her first year on campus. From here, Gibbons went to MIT and then to Vanderbilt as a Ph.D. candidate, working with a biologist who has a multimillion-dollar grant to study the evolution of multicellularity.
During the first year of her current project on passionflowers, Dr. Porter-Utley gave a presentation at a botanical conference in Vancouver. She took another of her students, Elizabeth Georgian '08, with her, and Georgian gave a poster presentation at the conference.
"When she was there," Dr. Porter-Utley noted, "she had the opportunity to interact with advanced students, professors, and biology professionals. Most were impressed that she had completed a research project as an undergraduate student. In fact, she was one of the only undergraduates presenting at the conference; most presenters were graduate or post-doctoral students and professors. She participated in field trips and really enjoyed speaking with people who shared her interests."
When Georgian started applying to graduate school, instructors in those graduate programs began contacting Dr. Porter-Utley for references. Her application caught their attention and most were very impressed. Georgian is now a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has received a fellowship from the National Science Foundation to study plant evolution in China.
Dr. Porter-Utley is taking a student to the Dominican Republic this summer to help her with her field research. Two of her other students will be going out to Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in California to learn about development in plants and how to do some additional DNA sequencing.
"I'm also taking a student to Missouri Botanical Garden, which is one of the largest in the world, to work with me on a different aspect of the project," Dr. Porter-Utley said. "I will also be employing a student this summer to work with me in the research lab. There are many ways in which students can participate in this research, and most of the students who have worked in my lab really enjoy what they're doing.
"I've worked with students who have not gone on to graduate school, and they've found that the technical skills they learned have helped them land jobs in biotechnology. Students have gone on to work at the Broad Institute at MIT, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, and Pfizer," Dr. Porter-Utley added. "They get great lab skills here. Just knowing how to keep a good notebook is extremely important.
"I love being at Keene State," Dr. Porter-Utley reflected, "because I have everything I need to do my work. At the University of Florida, a large research university, we didn't have a DNA sequencer in our department. The Biology Department here has two of them. Keene State College is the perfect place for me. The class sizes are small; there is a focus on teaching; the David F. Putnam Science Center is modern, offering all the tools I need to do my research; and my colleagues are very supportive. I love my work!"