Erin Sparks New Professor Profile

 Could you give me a little background about yourself?

I grew up in Illinois, in corn country, in the home of John Deere tractors and I never wanted anything to do with agriculture because I grew up with it. I went to Northwestern and got an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering and was interested in medical research. So, I completed a PhD on the medical side of things, working on liver development in mice at Vanderbilt University.

When I finished that, I wasn’t sure which career path was right for me, but I really liked research and teaching, and I hoped to become a professor. However, I wasn’t sure what type of institution I would end up at. I knew that if I went to a primary undergrad institution to teach that I would still be doing research and there was no way I could take any of the things that I had been working on—you can’t work on mice unless you have the infrastructure for mice—and so I started to look at other model systems that might be a bit more flexible in terms of future career options. I had a bit of good luck when I found my post-doc lab at Duke working on root development in plants.

New Professor Profile Erin SparksAlthough it was a completely new research area for me, I went and interviewed and I just loved it. I loved the way the lab asked questions and the way that they did science and so, despite trying to avoid working on plants early in my life, I realized that plants are incredibly fascinating and found myself drawn in.

Around the same time, I got married and as our wedding gift from my husband’s parents, we got five beef cows—they’re in Kentucky on his dad’s farm. We also purchased part of the family farm. Because of these connections, I have developed a personal investment in agriculture and I became much more interested in the on-farm operation. Being at the farm, planting and harvesting the fields, gave me a whole new perspective on my research.

What happened after Duke?

I came here. During my post-doc, I realized that I had an incredible post-doc mentor who gave me the freedom to run my own mini-lab within his lab. I supervised students, I had a technician, I got experience managing people and starting to think about the other aspects of being a professor which includes grant writing, management, and outreach.

My favorite part of being an assistant professor is thinking about the big picture and how to craft an idea. I’m someone who likes to write grants because I enjoy the challenge of asking, “How do I take these ideas in my head and put them down on paper in a way that can communicate to a broad audience and allow people to understand what I think is really cool? How do I get everyone else excited about it?”

What are you excited about research-wise? What will you start looking at?

Given my varied background, my research program merges all these different aspects. My lab works at the interface of engineering and plant biology and a lot of what we do is bioengineering. Many of the collaborators I’ve established here so far are in engineering whether it be biomedical engineering or mechanical engineering.

We work on corn roots, more specifically a root type that is called a brace root. As its name suggests, it is thought to brace the plant and provide structural stability. This is an unusual root type in the fact that it comes out of the stem above the soil and it looks almost like stilts coming off the plant. These root types have not been well-studied and so half of the lab is looking at their function. We’re taking a structural engineering approach to understand the mechanical properties of these roots, the arrangement and how they could be engineered to make a more stable plant. We’re also doing classic plant physiology, because they’re still roots so they likely have a role in water and nutrient uptake.

The other part of the lab is taking a basic development approach. We know a lot about root development but what we know about root development comes from the initiation of roots from other roots. We are interested in roots coming from organs other than a root (e.g. a stem). It’s what we’re calling de novo (latin for anew) trans-organogenesis, in other words something that is different than its parent. It would be like if you grew a finger from another finger, that’s what we know a lot about. But we don’t know how you would get a finger from a hand and so when we think about human regeneration in the bigger context of growing back an arm, we don’t need to know how you get an arm from another arm, we want to know how you get a completely different organ from the one it’s coming from. This is one of the few systems that allows us to study in depth what are the signals controlling this process?

With the brace roots, why hasn’t that been studied before?

They’re called brace roots and it’s almost an old wives tale that farmers have seen them forever and think “Oh yeah, they brace the plant, that must be what they do” but no-one has systematically tested it. Part of the reason is that roots are challenging to study because they’re underground. Most root research has been done on what’s called the primary root – at the seedling, as your seed germinates, you have a single root that’s called the primary root that comes from the seed. These studies are really fast. You put a seed on a plate in a lab and you can start to study that root within a few weeks.

In contrast, brace roots are coming out a month, two months down the road so timing-wise, they’re much more difficult to study because you have to wait for your plants to get big before you study them. I think we’re just hitting the point in science where questions about roots other than the primary roots can be thoroughly asked. You have to start somewhere and where the field started was with the primary root and now we’re trying to understand other root types. 

Will you use the field plots around here?

We share field space with Randy Wisser. Randy and Teclemariam [Weldekidan] have been managing all of our fields.

One of the challenges for me is that I’ve never grown corn before and so their expertise is just incredible. Going out there, learning when we plant, when we harvest, how to pollinate, just field management type things. A huge draw to coming here was having people who were willing to take the time to help and to some extent, there’s so much still to learn for us with field management. Although, our work spans the field, the greenhouse and the lab. We have different experiments for each of these growth environments.

What’s been your impression of UD?

I started in June and the thing that I have absolutely loved is the willingness of people from different disciplines to work together. These cross-discipline and cross-college collaborations are essential to my research. Just how quickly I’ve been included in things has been incredible. You meet one person and then you meet another person and then you meet another person and now all of a sudden, you’re included in this giant network and it was instant connection which was incredible.

The biggest thing we get warned about as new professors is that when you start your own lab it is very isolating. But that has not really been the case at UD, because of the great community in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and at DBI. At DBI, we have faculty lunches on Monday, which means that every Monday, I get to go hang out with other faculty in an informal environment, and it’s been great how quickly I feel connected and integrated into the community.

Any interesting hobbies outside of work? Besides the cows?

I have a big dog who requires a lot of love and attention, so activities tend to revolve around enjoying the outside with her. I also enjoy cooking and I am a from scratch, 10-hour meal preparer.

Article by Adam Thomas