Julia Nowak, M. Sc.
University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
MY BOTANICAL STORY (so far)
Ever since I can remember, I was fascinated with the natural world. I loved picking and drying flowers and leaves and observing how nature worked. When we lived in Ukraine, my parents and I would often go mushroom picking. These trips got me out to appreciate nature and learn about it, as well as about the mushrooms that we picked.
My first experience that can explain my interest in microscopy was in grade eight. I distinctly remember having to cut out the small letter ‘a’ from the newspaper and place it on a slide under a microscope. We were learning how to use a light microscope and how it projected the image to your eye versus what you were actually looking at. Then, we looked at an onion peel! I was fascinated with seeing the cells that could not be observed with the naked eye. In science, you learn about cells, but when you see them… it was just amazing! Not until my second year of university did I get the chance to really look. I had a work-study position at the University of Toronto Culture Collection for Algae and Cyanobacteria, and I remember being mesmerized observing the microalgae swimming around.
I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto in Biology. The first botany course that I took was in my third year, Introductory Plant Physiology. There was so much interesting information! Right then and there, I knew I wanted to study plants. Then, I took Comparative Plant Morphology which was one of my favorite classes, taught by Dr. Tammy Sage. I was fascinated with learning about how the first land plant looked and the transitions that they went through to get to the present state and such great diversity that we have now. For example, the Telome theory which tries to explain how leaves originated. The origins of other plant organs are also fascinating, but for some reason, this ‘origin of the leaf’ stuck in my mind the most.
The last part of the Introductory Plant Physiology course was taught by Dr. Nancy Dengler, whom I approached for a possible fourth year research project. She seemed reluctant, as she was taking a sabbatical the following year when I wanted to do the project. After some persuasion, she gave me a couple of projects to consider over the summer before I began the project in the fall. When I met with her that fall, she thought of another possible project for me, if I wanted it. She described to me that palms have compound leaves and develop them by entirely different means compared to the rest of the plants with such leaves. One of the things that gripped my interest was the fact that this has not been studied since 1980s, where essentially the last paper studying leaf development in palms was written by Dr. Don Kaplan, Dr. Nancy Dengler, and Dr. Ron Dengler. Thus, studying the development of palm leaves in Chamaedorea elegans and Chamaerops humilis became my fourth year project.
I worked with Dr. Nancy Dengler for two semesters and learned a great deal from her. She passed onto me her love of plants, particularly of plant morphology. Dissecting out the palm leaf primordia was very difficult at first; they are so tiny and essentially colorless, and hard to see even under a dissecting scope. I remember the first time that she took me to learn the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) and look at my samples for the first time. I could not believe how beautiful the palm leaf primordia were. Their form is so intricate! The onion peel came back into my mind. Now, rather than looking at cells, I was able to see a whole organ that was so small, only a couple of millimeters in length. I was hooked! It was amazing to just think of all of the things that we can’t see with our naked eye, but when it is put under the SEM… it is like a whole new world! The SEM is not a new advancement, but it was new to me and I was looking forward to seeing all my specimens with it. Even now, every time that I use the SEM, I get distracted by the beauty of the living material that I am looking at. I don’t think I will ever get tired of it!
This fourth year research project with Dr. Nancy Dengler made me fall in love with plant morphology! I found innovative things during the research project, but there was not enough material or fully conclusive results for publication. So, I decided to continue my fourth year research project into my M. Sc. I found Dr. Usher Posluszny at the University of Guelph, conveniently enough as my husband was starting a program there as well. I was very happy to find Dr. Posluszny as he is one of the few solely plant morphologists left, particularly in Canada, and he was happy to take me on to do a leaf development project.
For the last two years, I have been studying the development of leaves in palms, mainly focusing on two Chamaedorea palms: C. elegans and C. seifrizii. Being situated in Canada, there is not much easily available palm material. Aside from getting some material from local nurseries, I had the great opportunity of being able to travel to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens (FTBG) in Coral Gables, Florida. When my plane landed, on my first trip to Miami, I was amazed to see the palms growing outside. I did not realize how different the horizon would be; rather than seeing maples or pines, there were palms growing everywhere! I was overwhelmed by the amazing collection of palms at FTBG. During my excursions I was also able to meet some great scientists such as Dr. Barry Tomlinson, Dr. Jack Fisher, and others.
In my first year of my M.Sc., I had the opportunity to take a course taught by Dr. Tomlinson called Biodiversity of Tropical Plants through Harvard University. This was a field course that lasted one month. It was an astounding learning experience as Dr. Tomlinson knows so much about almost anything! For the first three weeks of the course, we would spend half of the day out in the field (FTBG, The Kampong, The Everglades, Matheson Hammock, and anywhere else plants grow) and for the other half of the day we would go into the newly built lab, at the Kampong, and study the collected plant material. We would dissect it, section it, stain it, and “learn from the plant” (as Dr. Tomlinson puts it). Rather than reading about the plant in a book, we would learn from the plant itself. It’s ok if we were wrong, at least we were observing and thinking for ourselves rather than blindly believing what we would normally read. In the last week of the course we were to do a project on something that had no association to our grad work, so that we learn something new. My project concerned the rhizome structure of the Zingiberales. I looked at three species in three different genera (Heliconia caribaea x Heliconia bihai in Heliconiaceae, Alpinia elegans in Zingiberaceae, and Canna tuerckheimii in Cannaceae) by digging up their rhizomes to determine whether there was any organized structure to what lay underground.
I defended my M.Sc. thesis, titled “Comparative study of leaflet separation in Chamaedorea spp.”, at the end of summer in 2007, although I felt that there is so much more that I could study with respect to palms. We had two publications resulting from this work (Nowak et al. 2007, IJPS 168(5):533; Nowak et al. 2008, IJPS, due out in summer of 2008) with another one currently in preparation. Dr. Posluszny kept me on until the end of 2007 to finish off some projects that I continually came up with during my M.Sc. Doing my M.Sc. confirmed that I love doing research and finding out how plants work! But it also made understand that although I love plant morphology, molecular biology is essential in complementing any purely morphological study. Not only is it important to know how a particular plant develops, for example, but it is also important to know what controls this development in order to have a ‘complete developmental story’.
I started my Ph.D. in January 2008, at the University of British Columbia with Dr. Quentin Cronk. Although it’s too soon to tell exactly what my Ph.D. will be, I know that I will be studying aspects of leaf development in poplar. This is a much more Canadian plant compared to palms, and thus much more accessible. Currently, I am working on a project, in collaboration with Dr. Erin Gilchrist, concerning the morphology and anatomy of some interesting canola (Brassica napus) mutants. I am doing this now while I am learning the molecular methods that will be necessary for my Ph.D. work.
I feel very lucky to be where I am at this point in my life! As for my future goals after I finish my Ph.D., a postdoctoral position after which I hope to become a professor at a university where I can teach and do research and hopefully have even a portion of influence on students that all of the amazing people, that I’ve had the privilege of meeting in my professional career thus far, had on me!