Graduating senior K.T. Payne has loved plants since she can remember. This spring, she was one of only 25 college students in the nation to receive a Young Botanist Award from the Botanical Society of America.
Four years ago, while visiting Campbell University as a high school student, K.T. Payne ’13 met Christopher Havran, an assistant professor of biology. She told him: “I want to study the floral evolution of tropical plants.”
Havran, it turns out, studies just that. “Up to that point I had not met a high school student with this type of interest in plant biology,” Havran says.
Payne chose to attend Campbell; and her freshman year, Havran taught her introductory courses in biology and botany. During an advising meeting, Havran gave Payne a scientific journal article and told her: “Read this, and if you’re still interested in doing research at the beginning of next semester, let me know.”
She did just that, telling him she thought the article was “really interesting.” Havran handed her 20 more scientific papers and said, “Alright. This is what we’re doing.”
Payne, a biology major, began to work with him as a research assistant studying the morphology -- or the form and structure -- of Hawaiian violets. Over the next three years, she worked with him on two more research projects that led to several presentations and a publication in a scientific journal. “Throughout it all, I witnessed her interest in plant biology grow stronger and more focused,” Havran says.
That interest and focus was rewarded this spring when Payne was one of only 25 college students in the nation to receive a Young Botanist Award from the Botanical Society of America, a professional membership society for botanical researchers, educators and students. “It’s the greatest honor I could have imagined,” says Payne, who’ll be among the nearly 500 undergraduates to graduate from Campbell on May 11.
Payne spoke to Campbell.edu about her research, why she’s drawn to plants and science, and what’s next for her. The following is an edited transcript.
How did you end up at Campbell?
At first I applied to all-female schools. My mom said, “You should mix it up some,” and she knew someone whose daughter went to Campbell. We came here to visit. I loved it, and I met a faculty member [Christopher Havran] that was doing the research that I wanted to do. It was the right fit.
You’ve spent the past three years conducting research with Dr. Havran. What has been some of that research?
My latest project is working with a shrub that’s found only on the Hawaiian Islands. There are three different species of the shrub. We’re looking at how they’re related, and we’re trying to figure out the closest relative to the shrub.
What have you found?
In the late 1800s, a scientist hypothesized that the closest relative to the shrub, the genus Nototrichium, was Achyranthes arborescens, which is found on Norfolk Island off the east coast of Australia between New Caledonia and New Zealand. We wanted to see if what he hypothesized was true, because back in the 1800s they didn’t have genetics, but we knew from some research published a few years ago that the genera of Nototrichium and Achyranthes are closely related. We found that the closest relative was actually from Asia, not Norfolk Island.
How did you figure that out?
Extracting DNA from leaf materials. From that extraction I can do a polymerase chain reaction, [a lab technique] that amplifies a specific gene region. Once we have that gene region, we send it to another facility, which sends us the genetic sequence of that region. We take that genetic code and put it into a computer program that produces a phylogenetic tree, which is like a family tree for plants. It gives us the hypothetical evolution of where the shrub came from so we can hypothesize what is related to what and what is not related to what.
Why is this important information to know?
The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated island chains in the world. Everything there now had to be brought there by something or someone, and everything has to adapt to the environment, usually by becoming a new species. On one side of Hawaii is a non-tropical, dry climate where small trees and shrubs grow, and they’re being taken over by invasive species. If we know the closest relative species, we can reforest those areas to keep the ecology of those forests true to the Hawaiian Islands.
What have you learned during your research?
If you want to be a scientist, you have to dedicate your whole life to it. My life revolves around science, and I love it.
Where did that love for science come from?
I really don’t know. My grandmother will tell you stories about when I was 3 or 4 years old, I would sit in the back yard and watch ants all day. And science was always my favorite subject in school. I was thinking of careers in the medical field, but then one day I realized I wouldn’t be happy doing that and plants were the way to go.
When I was in high school, my AP biology teacher brought in a bunch of daffodils one day, and we dissected them under a microscope. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It hit me: “You’ve always loved plants, and you love being outside. Why not do this as a job?”
What do you love about them?
They’re the basis of all life and a key part of the environment. If you take away one tree species from an ecosystem, you can completely deteriorate that entire ecosystem and, in turn, ruin an entire species. Everything in an ecosystem depends on something else. And plants can do amazing things. Sunflowers can clean up radiation. Certain types of mushroom can remove pollutants from soil. Plus, we can eat plants.
You won a Young Botanist Award, you've presented your research at conferences, and you've had research published. How did you manage that as an undergrad?
You have to have a good research mentor, and I have to give props to Dr. Havran. Campbell may not be not known as a research school; but, at the same time, it is a research school if you talk to the right people. And we may not have the same resources as an N.C. State or a Duke, but we can get those resources. When I needed plant specimens, I went to Duke. When I needed something sequenced, I sent it out. If you want to do research, you can do it here. Just seek it out.
What's next for you?
I am currently applying to the Master of Biological Sciences program at Marshall University, where I hope to study southeastern rhododendrons with Dr. Emily Gillespie (an assistant professor of biology). It’s my dream to get a Ph.D. in evolution and conservation ecology with a focus in phylogenetic research and biogeography.
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Interview conducted by and edited by Cherry Crayton, Digital Content Coordinator
Photos by Bennett Scarborough