University of Connecticut
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
My research interests lie broadly in plant evo-devo. I’m intrigued by all facets of plant development, particularly because a plant is always in the process of developing, and there’s no such thing as “the final form of a plant” unless we are talking about death. I get even more excited when thinking about plant development in an evolutionary context: How do specific developmental programs evolve and how are they modified in different lineages? Flower evo-devo occupies a very special place in my heart because that’s what I did my PhD on. Although the floral morphological diversity is seemingly infinite among the angiosperms, all flowers are highly organized structures. The structure, or the ground plan, of a flower is determined by the floral meristem early in development. My ultimate research interest seeks to understand the origin and evolution of the floral ground plan at the molecular level, and my PhD and postdoc work focus on two particular aspects of the floral ground plan: floral meristem termination and floral symmetry, respectively.
Floral meristem termination is the coordinated termination of stem cell activity in the floral meristem, and it is one of the defining features of any flower meristem. The variation in the timing of termination is a critical contributor to the variation in total organ numbers in flowers. So far, we only have a good idea of what the molecular pathways are that are controlling the termination process in Arabidopsis thaliana, which only has four whorls of floral organs. Using Aquilegia as a model system, I conducted transcriptome sequencing, confocal live imaging, and QTL mapping, and my PhD work revealed that the cellular process and molecular pathways governing the termination process in Aquilegia are likely quite different from that in Arabidopsis, and I identified many promising candidate genes that regulate the natural variation in the termination process.
On the other hand, floral symmetry is a major determinant of floral diversity. Most flowers are either radially symmetric or bilaterally symmetric in their final forms. The ancestors of all flowering plants and of all major lineages are predicted to produce radially symmetric flowers, while bilateral symmetry has evolved at least 130 times independently. While the molecular basis governing bilateral symmetry has been an active area of research and a very well-known pathway has been discovered, what activates this pathway in the first place remains unknown. Mimulus is an excellent system to study this question because it’s very susceptible to molecular and genetic manipulations. For my postdoc work, I use CRISPR, reporter lines, over-expression lines, and genetic crosses to study what determines floral symmetry at the earliest developmental stages.
How Minya got interested in the botanical sciences:
My name is Min Ya and I usually go by Minya in English. Min is actually my family name and Ya is my given name, so sometimes my name will appear as Ya Min (e.g., in publications, official documents) – but it’s still (probably) just me. :) I was born and raised in Chengdu, China. It’s a very populated, beautiful, and vibrant city with very good food. I’ve loved plants since I was little, mostly influenced by my dad, who is a huge plant nerd. I have so many pleasant memories of learning about plants from my dad. It’s always fun to take walks with him because he will point out all the plants along the way and tell me interesting things about them. We made many terrariums and bonsai from cuttings over the years. We grew grapes and made wine from them. We roasted jasmine flowers to make tea. We also used to have several Epiphyllum oxypetalum at home, and my dad would wake me up in the middle of the night and we would enjoy that short and spectacular bloom together.
However, growing up I always thought an interest in plants could only be at most a hobby; unless I want to do something with agricultural crops, studying plants would not be a viable career option. This perception was only changed in my junior year of college. After high school, I went to Sichuan University in Chengdu, and then I got the opportunity to exchange to Hokkaido University in Japan in my junior year. For this exchange program, an independent study with a research group is required, so I joined Prof. Fujita Tomomichi’s lab. This was a life-changing experience for me for many reasons. Firstly, I had no idea mosses can be used for scientific studies. Secondly, the research questions that Fujita sensei’s lab was focusing on did not seem to have direct links to improving agricultural yields per se, but they still use plants as a study system. Thirdly, it was the first time I learned how to do lab work. Despite experiencing many typical research-related frustrations (i.e., things don’t always work!), I still enjoyed it very much. By senior year, I knew that hanging out with plants is fun, research is fun, and I started to entertain the idea that maybe I could be a plant biologist.
But how do I know whether I really want to be a scientist? What plant should I study? What questions should I work on? What if I’m not good at it? What if I lose interest? While there were countless questions still circling in my head, my undergrad life was coming to an end. To give myself more time to figure out the questions, I decided to pursue a master’s degree, and found this “too-good-to-be-real” master’s program in Europe, called the Erasmus Mundus Master Programme in Evolutionary Biology (MEME). I spent the two best years of my life in Europe. I made many lifelong friends there, and I traveled across Europe with them. I started my MEME journey at Uppsala University (Sweden), then moved to the Université Montpellier II (France), then subsequently to Harvard University (USA), and lastly to Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (Germany). The rotation among different universities also gave me the opportunity to do research projects in different fields, and each project also focused on different plants as the study system. In the end, I got answers to many questions that I had when starting out: among all the research methods that I know of, I enjoy molecular lab work and microscopy the most; among all the things about plants, I am curious about their morphology, structure, and development the most; and among all the career options that I am aware of, I do want to become a scientist.
Another thing I am forever grateful about this master’s program is that it gave me the opportunity to meet and work with my PhD advisor, Prof. Elena Kramer at Harvard University. During my PhD, I had the good fortune to study the beautiful and charismatic Aquilegia flowers and developed my thesis (with Elena’s endless help and guidance, of course) to study the regulation of floral meristem termination in Aquilegia. I defended my PhD in Aug. 2021 and now I’m an NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellow with Prof. Yaowu Yuan at the University of Connecticut, working on the molecular mechanism establishing bilateral symmetry in Mimulus flowers. Even now, walking into the greenhouse or growth chamber to see my plants, watching the flowers and leaves grow from tiny primordia, looking at different mutant phenotypes I generated, and observing tissues under different microscopes, it still gives me so much joy that’s honestly hard to describe with words.
Minya's advice for those just starting their botanical journey:
If it’s possible, take your time to find out what you’re passionate about, and don’t be afraid of exploring unknown fields. Surround yourself with good people. Good mentors, good peer supporting groups, and good communities are about the most important things in your scientific journey. Learn about yourself, recognize signs of burn out and practice self-care. Try your best to always make time for your hobbies.
Music is a very important to me. I started to learn piano when I was five, and I still play it whenever I have time. I played in my high school choir, and I was in a band in college. Before the pandemic, I went to see rock shows at least once a month for more than 10 years. I also love traveling and kayaking.
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