Alumni Spotlight: Allison (Siekman) Barnes ’10


Tell us more about the National Science Foundation grant you received!

In July, I started as a Postdoctoral Fellow for the National Science Foundation under the funding area of the National Plant Genome Initiative. I am still associated with North Carolina State University, because that is where my supervisor is a faculty member. The grant was a very competitive national process. I am one of 13 fellows selected this year.

Right now, I am studying an enzyme that, when it is not functioning, allows corn to survive better in non-optimal growth conditions (like drought, heat or pretty much any summer in Nebraska!). It was discovered through a large study comparing corn from farmers in Mexico that grew in the mountains or the valleys. I came up with an overall goal that my research would accomplish over the next three years. Then I designed experiments that would help answer the big questions about how exactly the enzyme I am interested in works. Most of this is focused on understanding what makes the enzyme work and how to harness it. We also are interested in happens to plants when they have too much or too little of this enzyme. I wrote 6 pages addressing the intellectual merit, my actual experiments, and how I plan to give back to the public based on what I have learned. Six pages sounds like a lot, but when you’re writing a grant it can actually be really difficult to fit all of the details in such a short amount of space.

Why are you looking forward to working on this research for the next 3 years? 

I am really excited about starting this grant because the NSF read my ideas and funded me as an individual scientist, as opposed to giving the money to my university. This means that I get to do everything from the bookkeeping to the experiments. My grant was for $216,000 and this pays for my salary, research, and travel associated with the project.

I think that this research can be really important and exciting for a few reasons:

1- I get to do some really cool science every day. Just last week, I made protein out of cellular components in a petri dish. I use machines that cost anywhere between $500,000 and $1,000,000 to break down molecules into their individual masses. I grow corn that was collected from all over the world and collaborate with scientists all over the world. I get to do a lot of fun stuff and pull it all together into one coherent story.

2- This research can really help us understand how differences in plant genomes (the collection of its DNA) can impact survival of poor growing conditions. We are still learning more every day about how organisms adapt to local environments. In this case, highland environments typically have lower temperatures and less nutritious soil. We hope that by studying this enzyme, we can create corn that is more stress tolerant and more efficient at using the nutrients around it.

3- As part of my broader impacts (outreach) section, I plan to volunteer with Wake County 4-H. Wake County has a population of over 1 million. There is a large population of students who haven’t been to a farm, who don’t know how agriculture works, or who think they can’t be a scientist. I hope to show them that there is room in the plant science community for all of us and inspire the next generation of women scientists.

What was your path up to this point professionally? 

For the past 15 months I have been a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. For anyone unfamiliar with this phase of a research science career, it is similar to when a medical doctor does their residency. Basically, the next few years help to prepare me to run my own research lab and program.

My educational background is:

B.S. Agronomy – University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2014

During my bachelor’s degree I spent 3 years working in a research lab studying sugar metabolism in corn

Ph.D. Biochemistry – University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2019

During my Ph.D. I studied how plants sense freezing stress

I also had a grant from the USDA to support my final two years of dissertation writing

What are your future professional goals?

In the future I hope to transition to a role as a scientist at a research company. I am really passionate about creating crops that are more tolerant to climate stress and would like to stay in the Plant Biotechnology field.

How did your time as a student at Bennington Public Schools prepare you for your future?

From the very beginning of my time at BPS (K-12), I had teachers that encouraged me to be an independent thinker and to explore questions outside of whatever the textbook taught us. I think this primed me for a career as a scientist. My whole job is based on looking at results and questioning what they mean and what else we can learn from them. Additionally, my teachers always let us “dream big” and nurtured the belief that any goal could be accomplished.

What advice would you give current Bennington students?

My advice to current Bennington students is to be curious about the world around you. There is still so much in the world of science that is unknown. A lot of things that seem simple on the surface actually have really intricate processes that aren’t well understood. Question how things work, why we know some pieces of information but not others, and how we can fill in those missing pieces of information. The results you find might be really unexpected, but if you have a genuine curiosity and an open mind, the world is your oyster.