Biology Major Graduating in May Discovers Plant Gene

Lyla Jno Baptiste is graduating from Rutgers-Camden in May.

Lyla Jno Baptiste is graduating from Rutgers-Camden in May.

The most exciting aspect of research is making unexpected discoveries. A student could be mining through endless amounts of data to help find a common theme or pattern when, almost out of nowhere, something entirely new surfaces and unlocks mysteries and answers questions.

That’s exactly what happened at Rutgers University–Camden to Lyla Jno Baptiste.

The biology major from Willingboro was part of a team that discovered a gene that helps regulate plant growth. The group was working together to decipher the genetic basis of cell shapes in plants when it found GIGANTUS1 (or GTS1 for short), a member of a protein family that controls seed germination, growth, and biomass accumulation in plants.

“It’s amazing to be part of such an exciting discovery,” says Lyla Jno Baptiste, who will graduate from Rutgers–Camden on May 22. “Doing research like this can be life changing. It proves that research isn’t just some abstract thing. It can have real significance.”

The project was part of Rutgers–Camden’s Computational Biology Summer Program, a 10-week study funded by the National Science Foundation. Jno Baptiste was the only Rutgers–Camden student in the group of three that found the gene. The breakthrough discovery is important because it could help engineer important crops like corn and rice.

Jno Baptiste, who was born in Dominica in the Caribbean and graduated from North Brunswick Township High School, says research has been the highlight of her time as an undergraduate student at Rutgers–Camden.

“The environment promotes creative thinking and intellectual independence and I feel like it has helped me grow professionally and personally,” Jno Baptiste says. “I discovered my passion for scientific research and have decided to pursue this as a career path.”

Jno Baptiste says she has always been interested in biology and chose Rutgers–Camden because of its reputation as a research institution.

“I also love that it’s a small campus, so you can get to know your professors and feel like you’re getting a personalized learning experience,” she says. “As an undergraduate researcher, I got to work with amazing faculty members and undergraduate and graduate students. It really helped me understand the importance of collaboration and communication in the research community. It’s a hands-on learning environment and you get to really understand how that work can impact everyday life.”

Before Jno Baptiste and her team made the discovery, they analyzed thousands of genes governing cell shape patterning and growth in a model plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana, which shares traits with a large number of other plant species. After the students came across the GTS1 gene, their findings were published in January in the journal BMC Plant Biology.

“A discovery like this one demonstrates that research done at Rutgers–Camden can have worldwide impact,” says Benedetto Piccoli, the Joseph and Loretta Lopez Chair in Mathematics at Rutgers–Camden and Ph.D. program director for Rutgers–Camden’s Center for Computational and Integrative Biology. “It shows that undergraduate research can have amazing results.”

For Jno Baptiste, the journey is just beginning. She plans to continue her education by pursuing her master’s degree in biology at Rutgers–Camden.

“I’m very proud to be the first member of my family to graduate college,” she says. “I attended a year of community college right after high school, but I dropped out to work full-time. I decided to go back to school because I wanted a fulfilling career that would provide me with intellectual growth.”

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