By: Sheila Foran
Though still an undergraduate, Nikisha Patel has already made an impression on the world of botany. Patel was recently named a winner of a 2011 Young Botanist Award from the Botanical Society of America, one of about 30 students chosen nationally for this recognition, which is usually restricted to graduating seniors.
Patel, who has just completed her junior year, is in the Honors Program, majoring in biology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. A native of Avon, Conn., she originally chose UConn because of its size – it’s big – and because of the wide variety of courses and majors in the sciences.
“I knew I wanted to do something in life sciences, but I wasn’t sure what area I really wanted to get into,” Patel says, “and I wanted to have the option of changing my mind. UConn gave me a lot of flexibility to choose among things that interested me.”
As an honors scholar, she is required to complete a thesis or project related to her major. She was open to suggestions and, at the urging of another student, she approached Professor Greg Anderson to ask about the possibility of doing some work in his lab. That’s when the metaphorical clouds parted and she discovered the intriguing world of botany.
Anderson, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in CLAS, is an expert in several areas, including pollination and reproductive biology, island botany, and conservation botany.
One of his research projects includes the study of a very rare member of the nightshade family, Solanum conocarpum, that is found in the wild only on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. “It’s in the genus of potato and tomato, and its species name, ‘conocarpum,’ comes from the fact the fruit is conical,” says Anderson. “I’ve been working on it because I’m interested in how plants become established, and how they proliferate and survive in island settings.”