Mizzou alumna Jeongmin Choi received the Council of Graduate Schools/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award on Dec. 3. The prestigious national award is given to an individual whose doctoral dissertation makes unusually significant contributions to its discipline. When Choi wrote her dissertation, she was a doctoral candidate in plant sciences from the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

Choi was recognized in 2014 by the MU Office of Graduate Studies for her outstanding doctoral dissertation research. As the recipient of the MU Graduate Studies Distinguished Doctoral Dissertation Award, she was the first student to be nominated by the University of Missouri for the national Council of Graduate Schools (CGS)/ProQuest award.

“Mizzou has incredibly innovative graduate students who will become the leaders of tomorrow,” Leona Rubin, associate vice chancellor for Graduate Studies, says. “One goal of the Office of Graduate Studies is to provide support for students and their academic units in submitting nominations that showcase and promote students and their accomplishments. I think it is telling that in the first year we made a concentrated effort to showcase our students nationally, a Mizzou graduate wins the national Distinguished Dissertation Award from the Council of Graduate Schools.”

CGS rotates through four sets of disciplines, with two areas for consideration every other year. The disciplines are biological and life sciences; social sciences; humanities and fine arts; and mathematics, physical sciences and engineering.

A New Field of Plant Research

Choi received the dissertation award in the biological and life sciences category for her doctoral dissertation on plant sciences. She identified the first extracellular ATP receptor in plants. Her successful identification of the receptor has opened a new field of plant research that explores the interconnections among plant stress, pathogen defense and development.

ATP (adenosine 5’- triphosphate) is the main energy source inside cells and is considered the driver of many life processes in plants, animals and humans. ATP is found in high concentrations inside cells. It also can be found secreted outside cells, which is referred to as extracellular ATP. When the molecule is found outside of a cell, it acts as a signaling molecule. ATP receptors are proteins localized on the cell surface to bind ATP from outside the cells and deliver the information inside the cells. Therefore, the identification of ATP receptors is essential in understanding the cell-signaling pathway. Until now, ATP receptors had been characterized in mammals, but receptors in plants had not been identified.

“The interesting part is that the newly identified plant receptor is different from animal receptors,” Choi said. “Although they sense the same molecule, they are actually quite different. The molecule can be released in response to various stress responses and also during development. We believe that the function of this molecule might relate as a danger signal, so that the plant knows that it is in danger.”

Now that the first plant receptor for extracellular ATP is known, it is likely that this receptor exists in a wide range of plant species. According to Choi, extracellular ATP has a role in many plant functions but especially in how they perceive environmental stresses such as drought and insect feeding. According the Choi’s dissertation adviser, Gary Stacey, Curators Professor of Plant Sciences, the discovery will lead to a greater understanding of how plants respond and recover from environmental stress.

Research, Teaching and Service

Many of MU’s nationally prominent scholars are involved in international research collaborations. While these collaborations enhance research and scholarly knowledge, they also serve as an international recruiting tool to connect Mizzou to the rest of the world.

Choi first met her dissertation adviser, Gary Stacey, in Seoul, South Korea. At the time, Stacey was collaborating with Choi’s master’s degree adviser, Sukha Lee, at the Seoul National University. Choi acknowledged other ways MU faculty and professors influenced her success.

“I am very satisfied with the education I received from Mizzou,” Choi says. “I had ample opportunity to work with many well-respected researchers in my field as well as other disciplines. I directly benefited from the presence of these faculty members. All of my experiences at Mizzou contributed to the three general areas I needed to develop as a plant science researcher: research, teaching and service.”

Choi acknowledged Mizzou facilities and international student services contributed to her success. Choi completed her research in the Bond Life Sciences Center and said that its innovative culture promoted her ability to conduct interdisciplinary research. MU also provides courses for international students to develop English-language skills. Choi said that the ability to take these courses was one of the most influential opportunities provided at Mizzou.

Choi was involved in many activities in addition to her research endeavors. To enhance her teaching credentials, Choi took courses in the MU Department of Education that emphasized college science teaching and tools for teaching undergraduate students. She led weekly meetings of the Freshmen Research in Plant Science group and organized the Interdisciplinary Plant Group seminar series, a community composed of 59 faculty-led research teams that provide an environment in which scientists explore research that transcends traditional department boundaries.

“One of my most memorable experiences at Mizzou was participating in the Mizzou Adventures in Education outreach program,” Choi says. “We brought our plants into Jesse Hall and talked with children about our research and findings. It was rewarding to see their excitement and responses to science. I am very grateful for my PhD advisory, Gary Stacey, and postdoc researcher Tanaka Kiwamu, who is now an assistant professor at Washington State University, for their endless support and guidance.”

Choi is currently working as a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. as a European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) fellow. EMBO supports post-doctoral research visits to laboratories throughout Europe.