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University Scholar Award 2023 – Qiang Sun

June 22, 2023

Adorning the office of UWSP Biology Professor Qiang Sun’s office are framed covers from Annals of Botany, the American Journal of Botany, the Journal of Experimental Botany and other professional journals, each showcasing his research and his magnified images of plant tissues.

His pathogen-host plant interaction projects have focused on crop diseases, including grapevine Pierce’s disease, which pose agricultural risks globally. Yet Sun is quick to point out that he has gained the support of many colleagues on and off the UWSP campus who helped to guide and foster his lengthy compilation of scholarship.

Professor Qiang Sun, biology, won a 2023 University Scholar Award.
Professor Qiang Sun, biology, won a 2023 University Scholar Award.

Over the past 15 years in the UWSP Department of Biology, he’s secured funding for his research through a deep commitment to collaboration with fellow scientists in other institutions—the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, University of California-Riverside and UC-Davis, where he completed his postdoctoral work.

Research has centered on two main fields: physiological plant anatomy and pathogen-host plant interactions. Sun has made a few significant original contributions to physiological plant anatomy by using grapevine as a model plant and employing innovative research techniques to address fundamental questions in plant stress (wound, tissue aging, drought, pathogen infection) physiology. His work has led to important findings, some of which have dismissed long-lasting hypotheses in the plant structure-function relations.  

A novel and effective research technique and protocol Sun established has helped him explore the pathogens’ initial introduction to and subsequent spread in a host plant, host plants’ developmental responses and their impacts on disease symptom progression. This work is very important – theoretically, in revealing disease susceptibility mechanisms of these host plants, and practically, in providing key information for developing effective disease control strategies. Sun has published more than 20 peer-reviewed research articles on major journals in the plant science field and has been invited to give research seminars in four research institutes.

Today, Sun also studies samples from an Amherst vineyard, along with those from Washington State researchers to learn how to manage and optimize the health and berry quality of commercial grapevines. He’s working on another external grant proposal to study grapevine trunk diseases looking at climate change and its effect on diseases.

Sun was awarded UWSP’s 2023 University Scholarship Award this spring to honor his dedication to research that furthers our understanding in plant biology. 

“Teaching is my primary focus but why I keep my research growing is because we emphasis scholarship. Doing research can make us stay current and bring those things into the teaching environment,” said Sun. 

Sun enjoys working side by side and engaging with students. He said many of the students he invites to work in his lab are curious learners in his plant anatomy and introductory plant biology courses. If they deepen that curiosity in the research lab environment, they can gain an edge for future careers and graduate work.

“They can learn critical thinking skills, how to design experiments to solve problems,” said Sun. “That’s really important for their future.” 

Two years ago, senior biology major Kade Fink reached out to get involved in independent research with Sun, working to understand the mechanisms on the cellular level of how bacterial pathogens work inside plants. After tens of hours of training in the lab, Fink was ready to prepare samples to examine with the powerful scanning electron microscope (SEM).    

“It has enriched my understanding,” said Fink. “Learning about the mechanisms of a virus and cellular work in plant biology, I think his lab opened up my eyes to the opportunities out there.” 

Being able to apply concepts from courses to research with such advanced research tools gave Fink a major advantage as an applicant for research internships. With encouragement and letters of recommendation from Sun, he was accepted into a research internship studying plant pathogens at Colorado State University this summer.

The payoff for all those hours spent in research for undergraduates is how well they are prepared for graduate or professional lab experiences. Sun has even connected with alumni who returned to UWSP in order to work in the Electron Microscopy Lab for business research and development needs. 

His lab students require a consistent time commitment. They learn the protocols for treating specimens of infected and healthy plant tissues. Treated specimens are processed for imaging with electron microscopes at high resolution. Then, analyses on the images may lead to meaningful findings. At the conclusion of research studies, students may present research posters or even collaborate with Sun on co-authored journal articles. Sun serves as an associate editor for the American Journal of Botany and guest editor for two other major plant science journals and has helped review manuscripts for more than 12 major journals in the plant science field.

Sun’s interest in botany goes back to his childhood in China. His father was an agricultural researcher. His biology teacher in high school sparked Sun’s curiosity comparing what goes on inside a cell to a tiny society. His first years of college gave Sun the opportunity to learn about plant biology, studying natural rubber-producing tissues collected from trees. For his doctorate work, Sun studied how the environment affects the growth, development, and functions of certain plant tissues; he did this research with tropical mangrove plants. He worked next in photobiology, for RIKEN (a Japanese research organization), studying how light regulates plant growth and development.  

Understanding the interaction between pathogen and host plant drives Sun and his colleagues to further research. He has been immersed in a grapevine disease study funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and California Department of Food and Agriculture, collaborating with researchers in other research institutes in the U.S.

Professor Sun with former student , Ph.D. candidate Joe Grosskopf, at the 2016 Posters on the Hill organized by the Council on Undergraduate Research.
Professor Sun with former student , Ph.D. candidate Joe Grosskopf, at the 2016 Posters on the Hill organized by the Council on Undergraduate Research.

A former student researcher and 2019 graduate in biology and biochemistry, Joe Grosskopf, is now a PhD candidate in plant physiology at UC-Davis. He shared that not only do students in Sun’s lab gain skills they will later require in the field, but Sun will instill in them a deep appreciation for the plant structures only visible under the microscope.    

“What stood out to me was the way he taught us something was ‘beautiful.’ The inside of a plant is like architecture when you see all the structures lining up at the magnification,” said Grosskopf. “It really is incredible to the detail in any living thing.”   

Grosskopf was a non-traditional student when he enrolled at UWSP and worked all four years in research with Sun to gain data on pit membrane development using the SEM.  He worked independently, processing samples in the lab, but Professor Sun was always accessible and motivating, demonstrating his passion for plant science, he said.         

“He was good at making students feel comfortable, like they could contribute,” said Grosskopf.