Student Stories

Can plants defend themselves? Third-year researches in campus greenhouse to find out

Preparing for a career in medicine, third-year Rachael Filzen embraces the challenges that make her a better scientist

A biological sciences major who hopes to pursue a career in medicine, University of Chicago third-year Rachael Filzen never anticipated spending most of her time outside of the classroom working with plants rather than people. However, in Prof. Jean Greenberg’s lab she discovered a passion for research and a growing appreciation for plants. Ultimately, this hands-on opportunity has become a defining aspect of her time in the College, expanding her intellectual curiosities and deepening her enthusiasm for biology.

In Greenberg’s lab, Filzen examines plant defense mechanisms and how certain proteins may be involved in plant stress.

“How plants respond becomes really important when we think about things like climate change,” Filzen explained. “Monoculture—which encourages disease—or lack of freshwater resources—which leads to increased salt in the soil—are stresses plants currently face.”

Filzen sees her research as a great way to gain experience in designing and presenting her own projects. She finds her work especially exciting because of its striking visual components.

“I do a lot of microscopy, specifically at where certain proteins are localized,” Filzen said. “If you see a big bright green protein ring, that means your protein is there. It was really fun to put that in my final results into the poster and have people see the visual product.”

Filzen presented her summer research on the role of proline-rich proteins in plant defense and immune response at the University of Chicago’s UCISTEM Research Symposium. During the autumn event, students from across STEM disciplines presented their summer work to their peers and other members of the University community.

Between her studies and extracurriculars, Filzen still makes time to visit the greenhouse on the roof of the Biological Sciences Learning Center where she plants N. benthamiana to continue her research.

“Sometimes I'll go up there and look at the Venus fly traps and butterflies from the Kronforst lab,” she shared. “The greenhouse is warm, bright, and it smells like plants. It's one of my favorite spots on campus.”

Since working in Greenberg’s lab, Filzen has grown more and more enthusiastic about plants. “I don't think I fully appreciated how cool plants are until I started working at a plant biology lab,” she revealed. “For example, plants show broad-spectrum immunity which would be akin to getting the flu shot one year and then being immune to all strains of the flu!”

While at the College, Filzen has also been excited about taking courses outside of her major.

“I took Intro to Humanities taught by Kathryn Cochran, which became a starting point for me in terms of learning how to convey a message, particularly when it comes to argument,” she said. “Those skills have been surprisingly helpful in my scientific career because making constructive arguments is how we determine which projects are worthwhile.”

Filzen’s passion for medicine and biology has also influenced her life beyond the classroom.

With the quad just next door to UChicago Medicine, Filzen has the opportunity to spend time with in-patient children every week before classes. “I love volunteering,” Filzen said. “The children’s faces when you walk in with a new book or something like that are just so priceless.”

As co-president of GeneHackers, Filzen also helps educate and engage with members of UChicago campus about synthetic biology. GeneHackers is an undergraduate-led synthetic biology research group that competes in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine Contest in Boston, Massachusetts. “Every year we design, conduct and perform our own research experiment that we later present alongside teams from all over the world,” she explained. This past year, GeneHackers team competed with over a thousand teams and earned silver for their project inspired by biofuel production. 

Between this, and also being a member of the Major Activities Board and a resident assistant in Keller House of Renee Granville-Grossman Residential Commons, Filzen has a busy schedule.

Still, although her experiments can be challenging, Filzen strives to soak up as much from her work and classes as she can. “You're going to fail sometimes, oftentimes,” she said.  “Ultimately what makes you a better researcher is learning how to deal with failure in the same way you deal with success.”