Plant scientist prepares emerging researchers for success in the lab and beyond

Group of eight students in lab of Dior Kelley in front of landscape painting
Assistant Professor Dior Kelley (front, center) with Iowa State students in her lab group in 2021. Front row, from left: Rebekah Muench, Melissa Draves, Kelley and Jodi Callwood; Back row, from left: Linkan Dash, Alexander Austin, Danny Dang, Damilola Olatunji (postdoc) and Craig Cowling.  

AMES, Iowa – Mentoring young scientists is a career priority for Dior Kelley, assistant professor of genetics, development and cell biology at Iowa State University.

“I always like to have undergraduates in my lab when we have grants or work study to support them,” she said. “Working with undergraduates gives our graduate students and post-docs the chance to act as mentors, too.”

This year, Kelley is especially proud of the achievements of two of her former students, spring 2022 graduates Melissa Draves, who majored in genetics with minors in agronomy and biology, and Rebekah Muench, an agronomy major.

Their work to develop a standardized method to phenotype seedlings of maize (corn) is featured in the October 2022 issue of the high-impact, scientific journal, “Current Protocols.” Kelley is corresponding co-author on the article, “Maize Seedling Growth and Hormone Response Assays Using the Rolled Towel Method.”

“This publication reflects hours and hours of painstaking commitment to detailed lab work, and data collection and analysis, that Melissa and Rebekah largely spearheaded themselves,” Kelley said. “This is important work. Many people are going to use this information.”

“We think our new, standardized procedure will be simpler than prior methods for scientists to understand, which will make it easier to compare research findings and troubleshoot if there are problems,” Draves said. “It’s also going to be pretty easy to apply it to other grass-related crop species.”

Interest in their new protocol started in March, when Draves and Muench presented a poster about their research at the 2022 Maize Genetics Conference in St. Louis, Missouri.

“That was exciting,” Muench said. “We had quite a few people talking to us about our hormone treatments for the assay (experimental method) we developed.”

Draves is now pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Missouri–Columbia, and Muench is working as a production associate at Bayer Crop Science in Indiana. Even though they have moved on, the young researchers are still working with Kelley on another publication about research they conducted in her lab.

“Melissa and Rebekah are just a couple of the stellar undergraduate students I’ve had the privilege to work with,” Kelley said. “It’s gratifying to see the ways their great work here is influencing their different career paths.”

Employing undergraduates in her lab often represents extra work, but Kelley considers it part of her job as a scientist at one of the nation’s top research institutions.

“The chance to experience science is one thing that attracts many of our students to Iowa State,” she said. “Undergraduates to our lab often stay for two to three years and find ways to really contribute. Other times, they learn they’re not cut out for lab work: We can teach research skills to a certain degree, but some are more innate.”

Kelley encourages students considering a research experience to think about characteristics linked to success in the team environment of science, such as:  

  • Can you adjust your schedule to devote regular time to the lab?
  • Are you willing to do routine, often repetitive work in the interest of answering questions?
  • Are you organized enough to be a good steward of data?
  • Are you comfortable asking questions and admitting if you make a mistake?
  • Will you be motivated to read research papers and show up for lab meetings?
  • Are you able to communicate professionally?

“My time spent in a lab as an undergraduate was really important to my career,” Kelley said. “It’s rewarding to be able to give opportunities to the emerging researchers who will build on my work in the future.”    

Two young women on either side of a standing poster.
Melissa Draves (left) and Rebekah Muench at the 2022 Maize Genetics Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, with a poster describing research they led as undergraduates working in the lab of Dior Kelley.