Alison Coomer ’20 wins global thesis competition
Alison Coomer believes everyone should know about nematodes.
Did you know that the most abundant animal on earth is a nematode? In fact, she says, there are 57 billion nematodes for every one human on Earth. Most of them are microscopic and many of them are marine-based, however, they are in every soil or ecosystem available.
The specific nematodes Coomer—a second-year doctoral student at the University of California-Davis—studies are plant parasites, known as root-knot nematodes (Meloidogyne spp.). Her research focuses on the molecular mechanisms they use to defend against plant immune systems. These feasting nematodes can infect almost any crop or ornamental plant worldwide thus causing substantial yield losses, directly impacting the agricultural community. Coomer’s research, works toward better understanding the defense mechanisms in plants toward plant parasitic nematodes (PPN).
“These nematodes are really smart for being a fairly simple organism,” Coomer, a 2020 Concordia graduate, says. “In Nebraska, you might hear about the soybean cyst nematode, as it’s a major problem across the Midwest.”
Coomer’s enthusiasm for studying these organisms led her to enter an international thesis competition sponsored by the International Federation of Nematology Societies (IFNS). One of 22 entries, Coomer won the competition with her three-minute thesis on root-knot nematodes and the Mi resistance gene. She will be awarded and recognized at the 7th International Congress of Nematology, planned for May 1-6 in Antibes, France.
“There’s this thing called resistance genes, that enable plants to recognize a pathogen such as an invading nematode and can be found either naturally or bred into these plants,” she says. “I specifically work with the Mi-gene in tomatoes. This resistance gene has resistance towards root-knot nematodes, white flies and aphids, and in turn has help saved the tomato industry.”
One of the varieties of nematodes Coomer studies is able to overcome the resistance gene—appearing in secluded, controlled populations—not a large concern at the moment, but could be in the future.
“If we’re able to stay ahead of the resistance breaking population and figure out what’s causing this phenomenon, we can hopefully apply it to other varieties of nematodes when breaking populations occur,” she says.
Coomer is conducting her research as part of the Siddique Lab, managed by Shahid Siddique, an assistant professor at UC Davis in the department of entomology and nematology, who has extensive experience studying plant-parasitic nematodes. UC Davis, Coomer says, has the one of the top research programs in the ag industry, and her doctoral degree will be in plant pathology with an emphasis in nematology.
“I’ve always been interested in the field of pathology, studying diseases,” she says. “But I knew I didn’t want to work with humans, so I thought plants was the next best thing. Our lab specifically studies nematodes within plant pathology. When I interviewed with Dr. Siddique, I didn’t have much experience in the field of nematology, but he told me that if I had an interest, I’d be fine, and he was right. I love the field and I couldn’t imagine being in another right now.”
Coming from a smaller university like Concordia, to a much larger university like UC Davis, Coomer was hesitant at first, but after being on campus and working in the lab, she says she’s had many opportunities to share her passion for research, as well as her love for Christ.
“At Concordia, many people are Christians, and have that in common, but that’s not necessarily the case here,” she says. “It’s given me a lot of time to think on it and I’ve been trying to build relationships with people, not forcing my beliefs on them, but visiting with them about different ideas. I feel like I’ve had so many witnessing opportunities here, and have been very grateful for my time at Concordia which has prepared me for this new stage in my life.”
As a student at Concordia, Coomer, who is originally from Troy, Missouri, says she was able to build her foundation of faith, and now is able to witness her faith to others through not just conversations, but by displaying her Christian values in her actions.
“I think it’s where we all stem from as Christians,” she says. “It’s our Christian values at work — do onto others as you would like to be done. It’s the golden rule.”
Academically, Coomer was a double major who earned degrees in biology and chemistry. She could visualize her next steps largely due to working with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service program for two summers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus and working with and under multiple professors at Concordia.
“I would say that internship experience at the USDA-ARS was a key factor in how I got into all this,” she says. “Having this first-hand experience working on set research projects gave me the skill set and confidence to apply to grad school and continue on in research.”
Coomer says her professors at Concordia understood her faith background, and showed her what it meant to be a Christian and also be a scientist, which inspires her to want to teach at a university level eventually after earning her doctorate.
“Having professors be role models who are committed to their faith and pursing science is awe-inspiring,” she says. “That part is more difficult at Davis because religion is not the number one priority. People are very accepting, but the feel and environment of Concordia is so different. Having that foundation in faith was huge and I’m trying to create it everywhere I go.”