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#2024UMMCGrad: Estelle Blair balances medical school and motherhood – single, but not alone

Posted on: May 10th, 2024 by cnstewa1 No Comments

Department of Biology BA August 2018 graduate

Published on Monday, May 6, 2024

By: Gary Pettus,

Photos By: Jay Ferchaud/ UMMC Communications

It’s easy to take your breath for granted, until your child loses hers.

Estelle Blair will never take it for granted again. The day her daughter stopped breathing, she did, too.

As Lucy grew older, the febrile seizures that stole her breath faded away; the impact on her mom did not.

Her emotions will follow her throughout a career that begins after her graduation this month from the University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Medicine.

“We can forget sometimes in medicine, what it’s like discovering how fragile life is,” she said, “especially seeing this with someone we love.

“Whenever a child enters a hospital or pediatrician’s office, it can be scary for their parents. I can meet those parents where they are now.”

On May 24, Blair will be one of around 159 receiving medical degrees from UMMC, but probably the only one who will have graduated from high school, college and medical school, as a single parent.

Brought up in Flowood as one of four children, she was still in high school when she learned she would be a mom – single, but not alone.

“I have this incredible family with these incredibly strong women,” she said. Namely: Anne Salvo, her mom, and Allie Blair and Rachel Blair, her sisters.

Portrait of Lyssa Weatherly

They told her that, no matter what, she should, and could, get an education. Rachel was the first to tell her she could become a doctor. Among those who saw that happen was Dr. Lyssa Weatherly.

“What I find most amazing about Estelle’s story is her humility and selflessness throughout this journey,” said Weatherly, associate professor of medicine and assistant dean for student affairs in the School of Medicine.

“I’m thankful to have learned a little about motherhood from her, and I hope I can raise my own daughter and balance being a woman in medicine with the grace she has taught me along the way.”

The way wasn’t easy. “My daughter saw me fail more times than I can count,” Blair said. “But – I hope – she saw me get back up and try again. I needed her to see this; it’s what kept me going.”

While attending Hinds Community College, a scholarship came through for her. Blair moved in with Allie, in Oxford; she entered the University of Mississippi – and one of the most demanding times of her life.

Mornings at 6, she woke up and took care of Lucy. When the baby-sitter didn’t show up, Lucy went to class with her, at 8 a.m. After studying until 5 p.m., she had play time with her daughter. She needed those breaks – especially after that first test, on genetics.

“I did so badly, I thought I was going to fail the class,” she said. She called her dad, Bill Blair, who told her, “‘I would rather see you fail than see you give up.’

“We all want to believe we’re pretty tough – ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ is something we’re taught,” she said. “But some people don’t have bootstraps. I did: My family.

“And I understood it was a huge privilege to be able to go to college. It was important for me to always be there, to show up. Not many people get to be there. And many girls who get pregnant in high school don’t finish.

“It was like I was representing them. So, I didn’t give up.”

While studying at Ole Miss, Blair did research on pediatrics and obesity. She worked on the marijuana farm there: “They offer health insurance,” she said. She volunteered with the local Boys & Girls Clubs and at a nursing home. She tutored college students, as well as high school kids taking the ACT.

Dr. Jeff Crout, professor of pediatrics, is on hand as Estelle Blair examines patient Micah Warren, 8, of Starkville. Blair chose to stay at UMMC for her residency in pediatrics-neurology.
Dr. Jeff Crout, professor of pediatrics, is on hand as Estelle Blair examines patient Micah Warren, 8, of Starkville. Blair chose to stay at UMMC for her residency in pediatrics-neurology.

Along the way, she, too, was being tested. One test had a single question: How badly do you want to be a doctor?

Medicine had always captivated her. Pandemics fascinated her: She saved Newsweek issues that covered the Zika virus.

Obviously, her own daughter’s medical condition riveted her most of all. “Starting around age 2, Lucy would get sick and spike a fever,” Blair said. “Kids’ brains have a lower seizure threshold than adults’, but they usually grow out of this.”

For Lucy, it lasted about three months, as she and Blair met frequently with physicians. There will be no long-term effects, physically, for Lucy, who is 11 now; but those seizures will always affect Blair. They would even influence her choice of specialties.

“I realized that, in taking care of a child, you get to take care of the family, too,” she said. “There’s nothing else like it, to take care of those who have no voice.”

For about six months, while working, attending class and taking care of Lucy, she studied for the Medical College Admission Test. It paid off.

“I remember the acceptance letter,” she said. ‘I’m a crier, so I cried.”

On the first day of medical school, she and her classmates sat six feet apart and wore a mask. During those first two years of COVID, “we just kind of winged it, and we got through it,” she said.

“The administration made sure we got to the finish in a timely fashion, which I am extremely grateful for. And I’m so thankful for those online courses – because I was able to homeschool Lucy.”

During Blair’s four years of medical school, Weatherly never heard her complain. “Most medical students have one job: being a medical student,” Weatherly said. “Estelle has been a medical student, pandemic home-school teacher, researcher, advocate, caregiver, volunteer, and, most importantly, mother.

“And she has worn each hat with unwavering grace.” Soon, she’ll be wearing one more: pediatrics-neurology resident – at UMMC.

On March 15, Estelle Blair announces her residency match. With her, from left, are the daughters of her partner, Mark Adair: Quinn Adair, 6, and Ellerie Adair,7, along with her own daughter, Lucy. “I got to go up on stage with three little girls,” Blair says, “and I hope they now believe they also can do whatever they want.”
On March 15, Estelle Blair announces her residency match. With her, from left, are the daughters of her partner, Mark Adair: Quinn Adair, 6, and Ellerie Adair,7, along with her own daughter, Lucy. “I got to go up on stage with three little girls,” Blair says, “and I hope they now believe they also can do whatever they want.”


“I decided to stay in Mississippi,” Blair said. “I love Mississippi – the literature, the music – but we also have to grapple with our history. I want to work on letting people in who have been left out. To do that, I don’t have to go overseas.”

She chose pediatrics-neurology, not only because of Lucy, she said, but also because of her fascination with the brain. “The brain and children, and their relationship with their parents.”

Portrait of Austin Harrison

To her specialty, Blair brings “empathy, compassion and her experience as a single mother,” said Dr. Austin Harrison, associate professor of pediatrics. “I can think of no better field for her.”

On March 15, Blair announced that decision to hundreds of people attending the medical school’s Residency Match Day . With her were Lucy, along with Ellerie Adair, 7, and Quinn Adair, 6, the daughters of her partner, Mark Adair.

“I got to go up on stage with three little girls,” Blair said, “and I hope they now believe they also can do whatever they want.”

It was one of the happiest days of her life; she will carry it with her always, as she will the saddest: the day her best friend from high school, while recovering from addiction, died from an overdose, alone.

“The question comes up, then: Was there anything else I could have done?” she said.

So, in my medical practice, I will always have that question about my patients: Is there anything else I can do?” And try to help their parents catch their breath.

Biology Halloween Open House

Posted on: October 30th, 2023 by cnstewa1 No Comments

Scary fun for students and faculty at UM on Halloween

Patrick Allison, a PhD student of Ryan Garrick

Patrick Allison, a PhD student of Ryan Garrick, associate professor of biology, at the University of Mississippi Department of Biology Halloween Open House.


On Halloween, the University of Mississippi Department of Biology is hosting a spooky time at their second annual Halloween Open House. The open house is scheduled to take place on Tuesday, October 31 from 12 to 3 pm. 


“It is going to be another exciting and productive Halloween Open House of the Biology Department,” said Sixue Chen, chair and professor of biology. “It does take everyone’s effort to make this happen.” 


The Halloween Open House will feature a walk through the haunted River Lab of Doom. The lab in Shoemaker 331 was established by Cliff Ochs, professor emeritus of biology, who conducts research along the Mississippi River.


Dr. Colin Jackson

Colin Jackson, professor of biology attends the University of Mississippi Department of Biology Halloween Open House.

According to Colin Jackson, professor of biology, legend has it that covens of witches practiced dark rites in the swamps of the river. Ochs unknowingly brought back the remaining spirits and other denizens of the Mississippi River with his samples. While the lab was active, the creatures stayed hidden, but now that the lab is retired and abandoned, they have found the lab to be their new home. 


“Dare you enter the haunted River Lab of Doom!” the biology department flyer warns. 


The open house will also feature a scavenger hunt, where students can follow clues through Shoemaker Hall and explore different labs, research demonstrations, and opportunities in the department.  


“It is a fun way to make biology exciting and inspiring to our biology majors (especially freshmen) and pretty much anyone interested in life and sciences,” Chen said.  


Other activities include a crawfish and snake show and raffles for prizes. The open house also provides students and prospective students the opportunity to tour the labs and talk to Biology faculty about courses and future career paths.  


Carol Britson, Instructional Professor of Biology

Carol Britson, instructional professor of biology, and students at the 2022 Department of Biology Halloween Open House.

In establishing the Halloween Open House, the biology department wanted to foster a sense of community and family for biology students, faculty, and staff. “The primary goal of planning the event last year was to celebrate our biology majors and build a sense of community,” operations coordinator Candece Stewart said. “It is important to establish a welcoming and open department where students have the opportunity to converse with each other and with faculty.”  


Chen added, “Importantly, we want our students to have a memorable Halloween time with our big family. We would like to continue that sentiment this year.”  


The biology tent will be set up in front of Shoemaker Hall with pizza. Additionally, the department welcomes everyone in the university to enjoy and participate in the events.  

What Can Fish Sounds Tell Us About Artificial Reefs?

Posted on: September 14th, 2023 by cnstewa1 No Comments

Doctoral student uses noninvasive method to determine species found on reefs

Kayleigh Mazariegos retrieves recording equipment from an artificial reef

UM doctoral student Kayleigh Mazariegos retrieves recording equipment from an artificial reef near Cat Island in the Gulf of Mexico. Mazariegos deployed the devices for a week to capture the sounds of fish and other creatures living around the reefs. Submitted photo

Grunts, purrs, barks and knocks – it may be surprising to learn that these noises can come from fish. Known as fish vocalizations, these sounds are the subject of a new study at the University of Mississippi Department of Biology.

Kayleigh Mazariegos, a third-year doctoral student in biology, is leading a project to determine whether fish vocalizations can identify fish species. The Acworth, Georgia, native is focusing her research on artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico.

“I’m interested in artificial reefs because I used to fish them,” Mazariegos said. “Research on artificial reefs is limited. While people are able to catch fish on them, we don’t know their ecological role. We don’t know if they help increase fish and their relationship with ecological processes.”

Kayleigh Mazariegos shows off some of the equipment

Kayleigh Mazariegos shows off some of the equipment she used to capture the sounds of underwater creatures in the Gulf of Mexico at the Mississippi Aquarium. Mazariegos partnered with the aquarium on the study, which aims to determine whether fish vocalizations can be used to identify various species. Submitted photo

Mazariegos received funding from the American Museum of Natural History and the university’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation Research to conduct this work.

The research seeks to apply the principle of island biogeography to reefs, said Richard Buchholz, professor of biology and Mazariegos’ adviser. The theory examines why some islands have a certain number and diversification of species and others do not. However, specific challenges coincide with exploring this in the Gulf.

“The problem with the Gulf of Mexico is that you can’t put cameras down there because the water is too turbid and cloudy,” said Buchholz, who is also CBCR director.

“An alternative to catching is using acoustic sampling. It is a sophisticated method that has been used in animals like bats and birds for 10-15 years but hasn’t been widely used in aquatic habitats.”

This summer, Mazariegos partnered with the Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport to record the sounds of various species. She then placed small recording devices – about the size of a GoPro – on 12 reefs off Cat Island, a Mississippi barrier island.

Mazariegos is conducting a complex analysis of data from those weeklong recordings with help from the National Center for Physical Acoustics at Ole Miss.

Kayleigh Mazariegos experiment

A nighttime recording (top) from one of the artificial reefs features a chorus of sea trout and a call from a black drum (near the beginning). This recording was made at 1:25 a.m. in early August.
A daytime recording (bottom) from one of the Cat Island reefs features sounds of shrimp snapping. This recording was made at shortly after noon in early August.

“For some fish, you can get down to a specific family or genus, and others you can see that it’s this specific fish,” she said.

Despite just beginning to learn how to analyze acoustic data, Mazariegos expects her preliminary data set to spawn results by December.

An important element to the project is utilization of the GulfSeeLife app. The UM-developed app, funded via a RESTORE Act grant from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, allows “citizen scientists” to record observations about plants and animals in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mazariegos is using the community science feature of GulfSeeLife to collect fish capture data that can be compared to the diversity of fish identified through acoustic recordings on the reefs.

The researcher said that her favorite aspect of the project is the noninvasive nature of this approach.

“The usual way is capturing them or using cameras,” Mazariegos said. “You could miss a lot because there are a lot of species that are more cryptic – they may be scared away or too small to be caught on hook and line.

Kayleigh Mazariegos experiment

Kayleigh Mazariegos used small audio recorders, about the size of a GoPro, on 12 artificial reefs near Cat Island in the Gulf of Mexico. Submitted photo

“With vocalizations, you don’t have to have an eye on them, and you can tell what’s there based on how they are behaving naturally. I think it’s a good idea to make these data more accessible and easier to collect.”

The Gulf is still feeling the effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, plus consequences from unprecedented warm waters and the influx of tourists to its beaches, Buchholz said. Mazariegos’ efforts to determine the role of artificial reefs could have important conservation implications in the face of those challenges, he said.

“Artificial reefs could be constructed in a way that is helpful to biodiversity – to things that fish eat and even things that eat fishes,” Buchholz said. “If you can maintain that food web in the face of all those challenges to living things in the Gulf, then we can protect that biodiversity.”

This research is supported by the Lerner-Gray Fund for Marine Research of the American Museum of Natural History.

Scientist Works to Develop Pest-Resistant Soybean

Posted on: September 14th, 2023 by cnstewa1 No Comments

Biology chair investigates wild soybeans for resistant properties

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UM biologist Sixue Chen is collaborating with researchers nationwide to combat a microscopic roundworm that causes up to 50% of a soybean crop’s yield loss. The project has huge implications for Mississippi farmers, who depend heavily on soybeans. Photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – A devastating pest for soybean farmers may soon be a problem of the past, thanks to research conducted by a University of Mississippi biologist.

Sixue Chen, chair of the Department of Biology, is collaborating with researchers nationwide to combat a microscopic roundworm that causes up to 50% of a soybean crop’s yield loss.

“We are trying to solve a real-world problem – the soybean is a very important legume crop,” Chen said. “It supplies more than half of the vegetable oil in the world and is a significant source of protein, contributing to foods like tofu.”

Harvest season for the soybean – Mississippi’s second-most valuable agricultural commodity – began in mid-August. Mississippi farmers planted nearly 2.3 million acres of soybeans in 2023, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Funded by a five-year Plant Genome Research Program award from the National Science Foundation, the research is targeting resistance to the soybean cyst nematode, or SCN.

“Soybeans are challenged by the soybean cyst nematode, the most devastating pest worldwide causing over $1.5 billion yield loss annually in the U.S. soybean production,” said Bao-Hua Song, lead researcher and biology professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

“Deploying SCN-resistant soybean varieties is the most efficient and environmentally friendly strategy for managing this damage.”

This approach is challenging, however. SCN populations evolve rapidly, resistance varies by SCN type and current resistant soybean cultivars are losing their resistance due to very limited genetic variation, Song said.

“It’s a tug of war – sometimes farmers will win the war and sometimes the pathogens,” Chen said. “Recently, the variety that farmers are growing has started to lose the war.

“The nematode evolves very fast, and cultivated soybeans have lost a lot of diversity during the domestication process. Breeders really care about yield, and they overlook defense capabilities.”

To tackle this, the research team is “going back to the wild,” Chen said.

“We know there are wild soybeans that maintain a lot of genetic variation, and they are resistant to nematodes,” he said. “We will try to learn from the wild soybean and see what they have in their genetics that gives them a broad spectrum of resistance. That’s what we need in the cultivated soybean.”

Soybeans are Mississippi’s second most valuable agricultural commodity. Researchers are targeting resistance to the soybean cyst nematode, a pest responsible for more than $1.5 billion yield loss annually in the U.S. Photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

The scientists are using modern tools to evaluate wild soybeans and compare their genetic makeup to cultivated ones. These methods take significantly less time than traditional genetics, which could take decades, Chen said.

“We have a tool in the lab that we can screen for the functions of these genetic parts of the plant,” he said. “They get generated really fast – within a few days, we know this part is important and it shows a promising effect.”

Once these parts are determined, the team will give these traits back to cultivated soybeans and optimize them so the plants will both defend against the nematode and produce seeds.

Results of the study will deepen the understanding of the molecular basis underlying nematode defense and ultimately enable the development of new and diverse soybean varieties with broad-spectrum SCN resistance, Song said.

“This will positively affect soybean farmers by increasing their yields with less pest spray, which is significant to agriculture and environmental sustainability,” she said.

This project is personal to Chen, who values the opportunity to contribute to solving food insecurity challenges in Mississippi.

“In our state, almost a quarter of people go to bed hungry,” he said. “That is shocking to me. I grew up on a farm really poor in China, and I experienced these issues.

“Half a century has passed since I grew up – and now in the No. 1 country, in the beautiful state of Mississippi, children are still hungry.”

An additional aspect of the grant involves educational outreach that will target college students, as well as train public school teachers in modern biology technologies, such as those used in this research.

“We want to ensure that students from low-income households, first-generation students and minorities have the opportunity to pursue career paths in sciences and make sure they have a better future,” Chen said.

“When I write proposals, I always think of the challenges our state has. Because we work at a university, I think we have a responsibility to our community, our state.”

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 2318746 via subaward from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte under 20230623-01-UMS.

Dr. Sixue Chen Receives Five-Year Award

Posted on: July 27th, 2023 by cnstewa1 No Comments

Sixue ChenDr. Sixue Chen, Professor and Chair of Biology, has received a five-year Plant Genome Research Program (PGRP) Award from the National Science Foundation. The project title is: Uncover new molecular mechanisms of cyst nematode resistance in wild soybean with systems biology and genome editing. The total award amount is $2,816,109, and Dr. Chen’s portion is $798,630. It is a collaborative project with Univ. North Carolina (Dr. Baohua Song, PI) and Univ. Alabama (Dr. Shahid Mukhtar, co-PI).

Kennedy Earns Challenge of Excellence Award from local, state Exchange Clubs

Posted on: June 14th, 2023 by cnstewa1 No Comments

By Alyssa Schnugg

News editor

Case Kennedy accepts the ACE Award from Exchange Club of Oxford member Kat King. Photo provided by the Oxford Exchange Club

Lafayette High graduate Case Kennedy recently received the Accepting the Challenge of Excellence Award from both the local and state chapters of the Exchange Club.

He is now in the running to win the $15,000 national award.

The ACE program recognizes high school students who have made a dramatic change in their attitude and performance during their high school years. These changes have enabled the students to overcome adversities and prepare for graduation.

Born at 29 weeks, Kennedy was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and has overcome many obstacles in his life in order to become independent, such as learning to dress, walk and school management.

Kennedy had to write two essays. The first was “What was the greatest accomplishment in your life that you are most proud if,” and the second was, “What are your plans for making your community and the world a better place?

Mississippi District President Kenny Williams of Cleveland presents Case Kennedy with the District Exchange ACE Award. 

Kennedy’s answer to the first question was something he did in October when he completed driver’s training to use hand controls and learning to drive independently. His second essay was on his goal to become an internal medicine doctor.

“My plan is to explain a patient’s diagnosis so they understand and be there to comfort them and show them compassion and to spread kindness throughout the world,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy will be starting his freshman year at the University of Mississippi. He plans to attend medical school after he earns his bachelor’s degree in biology.

“This is such an honor to have the district winner from our club. Case is a phenomenal young man and so deserving,” said Oxford Exchange President Denise Strub.

At the time of this birth, his parents, Rocky and Leslie Kennedy, were told their son would be mentally challenged and would never walk. When he turned 1, his doctors confirmed Cerebral Palsy and he began multiple therapies and injections to alleviate stiffness in his muscles with little effect.

Kennedy’s parents began researching doctors and treatments and finally discovered a doctor at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, who would eventually perform a surgery, called Selective Dorsal Rhizotomy. This procedure cut the nerves in the spine in the hope the muscles would be retrained to work better.

“I would say that Case’s positive attitude and outlook on life, determination and faith have been the reason he has overcome so much,” said Oxford Exchange member Kat King, who nominated Kennedy for the award.

Kennedy’s application for the national award will be considered among 25 other honorees from Exchange districts around the country.

The recipient of the scholarship will be announced on July 14 at the National Exchange Club convention in Phoenix.

Biology Professor Receives NSF CAREER Award

Posted on: June 12th, 2023 by cnstewa1 No Comments

Yongjian Qiu awarded $1 million to find biological solutions to agricultural challenges

Biologist Yongjian Qiu (right) works with Ole Miss graduate student Anupa Wasti in his lab

Biologist Yongjian Qiu (right) works with Ole Miss graduate student Anupa Wasti in his lab in Shoemaker Hall. Working to understand the processes that alert plants when to absorb sunlight, Qiu has been awarded a $1 million CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation to fund the project. Submitted photo

The National Science Foundation has awarded University of Mississippi biologist Yongjian Qiu a $1 million grant to further his research into the effects of global warming on crops.

Designed to help new teacher-scholars establish their research programs, the NSF CAREER grant will help Qiu conduct more in-depth analysis of the processes that alert plants when to absorb sunlight: phytochrome-interacting factors and HEMERA protein signaling.

“This project is highly relevant to plant growth, development and crop yield under the changing climate,” said Sixue Chen, UM professor and chair of biology.

Qiu’s lab, which focuses on biological solutions to agricultural challenges, is working to solve a problem caused by increasing temperatures due to global warming: a plant stem grows too fast, damaging the plant’s biomass and leading to severe crop reductions. Their goal is to develop climate-smart crops.

To conduct the study, they are evaluating plant growth in controlled warm, nonstressful environments, a process known as thermomorphogenesis.

Yongjian Qiu

Yongjian Qiu is building on his earlier studies of plant growth to understand how different parts of plants react to rising temperatures. Submitted photo

“We try to see how plants can cope with this warmer climate,” Qiu said.

While many scientists focus on how plants respond to high-temperature heat stress, Qiu’s team is instead studying the effects of using slightly warmer than normal temperatures, which can have a dramatic effect how fast a plant grows, when it flowers and the density of the stomata.

Qiu had previously discovered that plants cannot grow their stem in warm temperatures without the presence of the HEMERA protein. To advance his research, Qiu needed to isolate parts of the plant to determine their individual reactions to rising temperatures.

Using an Early-concept Grant for Exploratory Research, Qiu worked with Yiwei Han, UM assistant professor of mechanical engineering, to develop micro-heaters, only 1 millimeter-by-1 millimeter in size. Produced using a 3D printer, the micro-heaters are used to elevate the temperatures of certain plant areas, such as leaves, to isolate how plants adjust to varying environmental conditions.

Their results, detailed in a TEDxUniversityofMississippi talk earlier this year, offer some promising possibilities.

“When a leaf is exposed to extreme heat, a heat-shock protein is highly induced, not only in that leaf but also in distal leaves and the stem,” Qiu said. “There is some signal – communications – between the organs stem, leaf, roots.

Yongjian Qiu

Yongjian Qiu is using a plant called Arabidopsis thaliana, a small type of cress, in his project to understand the processes that alert plants when to absorb sunlight. His goal is to develop climate-smart crops. Submitted photo

“We want to see if some sort of signaling molecules can be delivered.”

To develop results on a cellular level, the two researchers are collaborating again to develop even tinier wireless micro-devices that can be placed onto organs and into the cells of plants.

“We want to make an easier, more consistent way to generate heat,” Qiu said. “Also, we want to see whether we can place the heater into the cell, micrometer size. This is very challenging.

“Inside the cell, there is fluid, the cytoplasm, so the heater may move, even rotate. We plan to address this challenge, and once we do, it will be a significant advancement.

The goal is to discover exactly how PIF4/HMR-mediated thermomorphogenesis happens in plants.

Qiu and his Ole Miss team are using a plant called Arabidopsis thaliana, a type of cress in the mustard family.

“It is the best study model plant because it has a smaller genome, and it can produce seeds in large amounts and within a relatively short period,” he said. “Its lifespan is usually two to three months, and again makes tens of thousands of seeds in one single plant.

“The genome is very small – only five chromosomes. It is difficult but readily transferable results that transfer to crop studies like vegetables because they share a lot of conserved genes.”

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 2239963 and 2200200.

Three UM Students Win Goldwater Scholarships

Posted on: April 4th, 2023 by cnstewa1 No Comments

Prestigious STEM scholarships awarded to Mississippi natives

April 3, 2023 by Erin Garrett

For the second year in a row, three University of Mississippi students have been awarded Goldwater Scholarships in a single year.

All native Mississippians, Christian Boudreaux, of Oxford; Noah Garrett, of Madison; and Alyssa Stoner, of Gulfport are the university’s 22nd, 23rd and 24th students to receive the coveted scholarships.

“As a cohort, these students are amazing,” said Vivian Ibrahim, director of the UM Office of National Scholarship Advisement. “They are scientists who care passionately about their research. They have all presented their work, so they can make complex scientific data accessible and understandable to the public.”

Goldwater Scholar Christian Boudreaux

Goldwater Scholar Christian Boudreaux, a sophomore biology major, plans to attend graduate school to study marine biology. Submitted photo

This year, the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation awarded 413 scholarships from a pool of 1,267 undergraduates nominated by 427 institutions.

The Goldwater is one of the oldest and most prestigious national scholarships in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics in the United States. It identifies and supports exceptional sophomores and juniors who show promise of becoming the nation’s next generation of research leaders in these fields.

Boudreaux is a sophomore biology major with a specific interest in marine biology.

“For me, there is no other biome or scientific topic on Earth that holds as much intrigue as the ocean,” said Boudreaux, who is also a Stamps Scholar. “The wealth and diversity of life that exists there is endlessly fascinating to me and is something that I want to devote my life to better understanding.”

Turning his passion into action is a priority for Boudreaux.

“Barely a semester into his college career, Christian instigated and founded Aqua Culture, an environment conservation student organization,” said Tamar Goulet, professor of biology. “Christian’s conservation initiative, so early in his college career, speaks volumes about how capable Christian is and his huge potential.”

Aqua Culture works to protect and conserve marine and freshwater environments, while introducing Ole Miss students to waterways that surround the campus. Members participate in trash clean-ups, invasive species removal, water testing and a range of other service projects relating to protecting the aquatic environments throughout Mississippi.

Boudreaux is studying abroad in Ecuador as part of a comparative ecology and conservation program.

Goldwater Scholar Noah Garrett

Noah Garrett, a junior studying chemistry and mathematics, plans to use his Goldwater Scholarship to continue his research as well as set him up for future scholarships and National Science Foundation grants. Submitted photo

“It has been incredible, and we have learned a great deal about the ecology of Ecuador,” he said. “I am living with a host family, so my Spanish has improved a great deal. In a few weeks, we will be leaving for our independent study project period where I will either be working in the Amazon or the Galapagos conducting a project of my own creation.”

After graduation, Boudreaux plans to apply to graduate school to study marine biology with the eventual goal of working as a researcher and professor at a higher education institution.

Garrett is a junior studying chemistry and mathematics. He was initially drawn to these degrees for their applications in research.

“I find math and problem-solving intriguing, so it has been a very rewarding experience studying these subjects at Ole Miss,” Garrett said.

Garrett is conducting research under the advisement of Ryan Fortenberry, associate professor of chemistry, in his computational astrochemistry lab.

“We’ve had four Goldwater Scholars in a row from our research group, and I’m so excited that Noah was able to continue that for us,” Fortenberry said. “Noah is a wonderful student and a dedicated researcher. He is one of the most easygoing people that I’ve ever worked with.”

Garrett said the Goldwater will help him continue his research as well as set him up for future scholarships and National Science Foundation grants.

“Becoming a Goldwater scholar has been a goal of mine since I first joined my research lab, and by obtaining such a prestigious award it has become one of the proudest moments of my life for myself, my family and my mentors,” he said.

“It is an amazing feeling to win an award that will reflect my years of research experience and hard work in all of my classes, as well as my future aspirations towards research and science.”

Garrett plans to ultimately obtain a doctorate in theoretical chemistry while continuing to perform computational research and studying many aspects of computer science.

Goldwater Scholar Alyssa Stoner

Alyssa Stoner, a junior biology major, plans to use her Goldwater Scholarship to continue studying the molecular processes behind life in preparation for a career in research. Submitted photo

Stoner is a junior biology major who is interested in molecular biology.

“I love researching the processes behind life,” Stoner said. “I enjoy putting together the different pieces of life and thinking about them on a genetic level. I feel almost like I’m doing a puzzle.”

As a supplemental instruction leader for genetics, she mentors her peers in this historically challenging subject. In this role, she facilitates student learning by designing mini lesson plans, discussing topics covered in the class and creating practice problems, among other tasks.

“Alyssa also serves as a supplemental instruction mentor in addition to her SI leader responsibilities,” said Hannah Glass, program manager for supplemental instruction. “This involves her in our marketing efforts.

“She is very dedicated to the program as a whole and dedicated to the success of the students who are in her courses.”

Stoner is working on her thesis for the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College under the advisement of Yongjian Qiu, assistant professor of biology. Following graduation, Stoner plans to pursue a doctorate in molecular biology and conduct research at an academic institution, biotechnology company or museum.

“The Goldwater will be a great addition to my resume when I apply to a Ph.D. program,” Stoner said. “I hope it shows that research is something that I want to dedicate my life to. I am committed to it, and I have the capability as well.”

For more information on the Goldwater Scholarships and how to apply for them, contact the Office of National Scholarship Advisement at

Study Could Provide Insight Into Origin of Heart Defects

Posted on: March 16th, 2023 by cnstewa1 No Comments

UM biologist receives National Institutes of Health award to study heart formation

Biology professor Joshua Bloomekatz (left) and doctoral student Rabina Shrestha examine a tank of zebrafish. Bloomekatz and his research team are using the fish, which has heart processes similar to humans, to study how cardiac cells rearrange themselves to form structures of the heart. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – A University of Mississippi biologist is asking big questions about the development of the human heart, and a new National Institutes of Health grant may help him find the answers.

“When I think about life’s big picture, I think one of the great mysteries is how we go from a single cell to a whole human being,” said Joshua Bloomekatz, assistant professor of biology. “Our research looks at how the heart develops – how embryos go from a group of amorphous cells to having a pumping, beating heart.”

The NIH awarded Bloomekatz $411,969 to conduct a new study that could help scientists understand why congenital heart defects, or CHDs, occur. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CHDs affect about 40,000 births per year. This is caused by defects in the heart’s development, Bloomekatz said.

Zebrafish embryos develop externally, or outside the maternal body. UM professor Joshua Bloomekatz is filming the fish’s heart development in real time as its cells move. Submitted photo

“This is fundamental biology in the sense that if we learn how things normally happen – how cells form and how cell movement happens – we can take this knowledge and use it when things go wrong,” he said.

“If we can understand the basic fundamental processes that create form in the heart, we can hopefully contribute to the understanding of how congenital heart defects occur.”

The study investigates how cardiac cells rearrange themselves to form structures of the heart, specifically the heart tube.

To answer this question, Bloomekatz and his team will observe zebrafish embryos. Surprisingly, this freshwater fish’s heart has similar processes to human hearts.

“The cool thing about the zebrafish embryo is that development happens externally outside of the maternal body,” he said. “We can film the development in real time as the cells move.”

The study uses a high-resolution microscope at the GlyCORE Imaging Core. The core gives investigators access to a wide range of advanced microscopy instrumentation.

Bloomekatz said another important aspect of this project is an emphasis on educational research experiences. He has invited both undergraduate and graduate students to participate in the innovative study.

Rabina Shrestha, fifth-year biology doctoral student from Kathmandu, Nepal, is studying intercellular signaling that regulates the movement of myocardial cells during heart tube formation. She said that this knowledge could have broad applications.

Pictured here are different shapes of cardiomyocytes during heart tube formation. Biology professor Joshua Bloomekatz and his team will investigate how these cells rearrange to form the heart tube. Submitted image

“Collective cell migration occurs at several stages of cardiac development, including during heart tube assembly, valvulogenesis, the initiation of trabeculation and it is also important during directional migration of several other organ progenitors such as the mesoderm and neural crest cells,” Shrestha said.

“Thus, our findings are likely applicable to a broad range of developmental processes and disease.”

Christian Miller, a senior biomedical engineering student from Bentonville, Arkansas, is assisting Bloomekatz by 3D-printing molds that hold and orient the zebrafish embryos so that they can be imaged as they develop.

“This is meaningful research because of the impact it has on our own understanding of heart development, and this understanding’s contribution to helping stop the leading cause of death in the United States: cardiovascular disease” Miller said.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under Award No. R15HD108782. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Department of Biology Assistant Professor Wins NSF Career Award

Posted on: March 14th, 2023 by cnstewa1 No Comments
Dr. Qiu

Dr. Yongjian Qiu wins prestigious NSF Career Award

Dr. Yongjian Qiu will use the $1 million award to aid in discovering gene expression mechanisms in plant thermomorphogenesis.  The National Science Foundation Career Awards are highly prestigious and only offered to faculty members who demonstrate the potential to serve as teacher-scholar role models in research and education.






In the context of global climate change, plants face a more fluctuating temperature environment. It is well known that extreme temperatures such as heatwaves have detrimental impacts on crop production and biodiversity. However, even smaller increases in ambient temperatures would dramatically change the growth and development of various plant species. These thermo-induced changes in the growth speed of organs (e.g., stem and roots), biomass, flowering time, the rate of photosynthesis, and the efficiency of water usage, significant impact crop yield and fitness. However, the precise mechanisms by which plants sense and respond to moderately increased, nonstressful (warm) temperatures are still unclear. The long-term goal of the proposed project is to elucidate the regulatory mechanisms by which warm temperatures trigger the expression of critical genes whose products contribute to the morphological and architectural changes in land plants. To achieve this goal, innovative technologies have been developed or adapted to examine the spatiotemporal functions and structure-function relationships of critical transcriptional regulators and their co-factors in thermosensory growth. Understanding these mechanisms is crucial for us to design and breed climate-resilient crops, potentially reducing the adverse effects of global warming on crop productivity and food security. The success of the project will also help train next-generation scientists from high school to graduate levels in performing cutting-edge research.


Different from the stress responses triggered by extreme temperatures, plant responses to nonstressful ambient temperature fluctuations require unique machinery. Among the discovered components, thermosensory transcription factors (TTFs) play primary roles in warm-temperature-induced hypocotyl (embryonic stem) growth, a process termed thermomorphogenesis. Among the identified TTF families, PIF4 plays a pivotal role in modulating thermomorphogenetic growth. Warm temperatures activate PIF4 transcription through a yet unknown mechanism, and accumulated PIF4 promotes hypocotyl growth by activating key genes involved in the biosynthesis of and response to the growth hormone auxin. The PI discovered HEMERA (HMR) as a coactivator of PIF4 in activating the thermoresponsive gene expression. Although HMR is required for PIF4 activity and protein stability at warm temperatures, how these regulations are achieved remains elusive. Through forward and reverse genetic approaches and bioinformatic analyses, the PI’s group has identified multiple factors that may regulate PIF4 expression, activity, and protein stability upon temperature elevations. The proposed research will uncover PIF4-mediated thermomorphogenetic mechanisms and transcriptional regulatory networks formed by PIF4 and other TTF families. The integrated educational plan will improve STEM preparedness at the University of Mississippi and across the state of Mississippi and includes efforts to 1) enhance undergraduate and graduate education in plant molecular genetics and physiology at UM; 2) develop a plant phenomics and molecular genetics summer research program for underrepresented minority students at UM and HBCUs; 3) develop a plant molecular biology summer research program for high school and community college students with disadvantaged backgrounds.