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Doctoral Student Earns Grant from ‘Graduate Women in Science’ to Research How Plants Defend Against Insects


JONESBORO – Blue cactus-borers attack prickly pear cacti, and the cacti have an arsenal of defenses ready. However, when the South American cactus-borer attacks, it severely damages the plant. The study of why certain pests are more dangerous than others may help scientists understand how natural pesticides can be developed.

With a recent grant awarded by Graduate Women in Science (GWIS), Anastasia M. W. Cooper at Arkansas State University is researching how a plant’s natural defenses can be improved, warding off the effects of damaging insects.

A doctoral student in the Molecular Biosciences Program at A-State, Cooper applied for the grant a few months ago to support continuation of her research.

Her doctoral dissertation is based on carefully controlled experiments conducted on cacti, “Opuntia humifusa.”

Her hypothesis is that cactus plants exchange plant volatiles, or airborne chemical signals, as part of their defense response that allows them to “communicate” with themselves and other organisms. For instance, when attacked by the native blue cactus-borer, the plant might release volatiles to attract parasitic wasps to the cactus-borer.

Cooper’s research suggests that plant-to-plant signaling can also stimulate neighboring cacti to defend against cactus-borers, even exotic ones from South America.

“The main goal of my work is to identify a blend of chemicals that could be used as a natural, plant-based pesticide for controlling the South American cactus-borer in agricultural and nursery settings by elevating the plants’ natural defenses,” she explained. “Plant volatiles may be a viable new tool for managing invasive insect pests.”

She came to Arkansas State after completing her bachelor’s degree at Mississippi State University. A native of Kansas and a first-generation college student, she sought the grant to help sustain her work.

Graduate Women in Science offers various national programs to boost the role of women in research, including the Eloise Gerry Fellowship, for which Cooper was selected. Competition for the Gerry Fellowship is intense nationwide. Only 14 of 217 applications were approved for funding this year.

The prestige associated with the award is significant, both for her personally and for the institution, according to Dr. Travis D. Marsico, assistant professor of botany and her doctoral advisor at A‑State.

Since 2011, Cooper has served as a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow in K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Education, interacting regularly with elementary students at Wilson, Ark., to enhance their interest in science. She also mentors undergraduate university students because she wants to help bring more students into the field of science.

Cooper is the author or co-author of three articles that have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, with two more in process. In April, she made a presentation about her research at the annual meeting of the Association of Southeastern Biologists, where she won the award in plant science.

With her research and mentoring, Cooper embodies the A-State mission of educating leaders who through her own work is enhancing intellectual growth and enriching not only her life, but those of other students.

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