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University of Missouri

P Is for Perseverance

Childhood curiosity led Kara Riggs to plant science. She’s never let it go.

Kara Riggs Mizzou

Doctoral student Kara Riggs came to MU on a Life Sciences Fellowship. She studies drought response in plants. Photo by Rob Hill.

Kara Riggs swears it was the only time she read the World Book Encyclopedia for fun.

She held the “P” volume in her seventh-grade hands, open to the “plants” entry. At the end, the authors noted that scientists had recently discovered a new class of compounds, phytoalexins, that protects plants against disease in ways not yet understood.

The cryptic line sparked Riggs’ imagination. Looking for a science fair project the next year, her teacher didn’t know about phytoalexins, so she went to the local university. They said the topic was too complex for an eighth-grader. That was all it took.

“Well, now I’m going to have to do it,” Riggs remembers thinking. “You tell me I can’t do something because I’m not smart enough? All bets are off.”

The dogged 13-year-old called Ohio State University, and Terry Graham, now professor emeritus of molecular plant pathology and biochemistry, agreed to help design an experiment.

She returned to him for each high school science fair — “I always had soybeans growing in the corner of the kitchen” — and he mentored her when she enrolled at Ohio State.

After graduation, Mizzou offered Riggs a doctoral fellowship. She had enjoyed a summer internship in Missouri at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis (MU recently signed an agreement with the Danforth Center to jointly hire four researchers) and admired MU’s reputation for collaboration. Riggs has spent five years in the lab of Robert Sharp, professor of plant sciences and director of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group, investigating why some corn varieties transport water through their roots better than others. She expects to graduate in December 2015.

Riggs wants to work in the public or nonprofit sector fighting hunger. She sees a need for Mizzou-style collaboration between social scientists and plant scientists to craft anti-hunger strategies that account for cultural and scientific limitations.

Her divergence from plant science research is not for lack of love. When her parents told her they might pitch the 1980s-era World Books, she said, “Don’t throw out the ‘P’ [volume]! It changed my life.”