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Biology Major's 'Hobby' Takes Root, Grows Into A Dream

Aug. 9, 2012
SHSU Media Contact: Sara Thompson

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Brandi Cannon's work with the parasitic plant Phorandedron serotinum, commonly known as leafy mistletoe, has earned her a number of accolades. Most recently, she was recognized with the “Outstanding Research Award” at the University of Delaware’s 9th Annual National McNair Scholars Research Conference. —Photos by Brian Blalock


“With mosquitos biting any uncovered flesh and ants crawling between your toes, I used to complain incessantly when my mother would force me into her garden to work in her cacti or pull out weeds in the heat-blazing months of July and August.”

Recalling her first experience with gardening during her childhood in Houston, Sam Houston State University senior Brandi Cannon uses a face of such despise that any stranger might be fooled into thinking she was never to pick up another shovel or water bucket again.

“The daughter of an avid gardener, my mother always insisted I take part in her love for it, but I absolutely hated it,” Cannon said. “I would always proclaim that I was never touching another plant after I left for college.”

It’s a proclamation that gives her the slightest chuckle three short years later, standing in a greenhouse within SHSU’s Lee Drain Building covered in planting soil.

The truth is that Cannon did, in fact, touch another plant in college—lots of them.

Her work with plant-life would ultimately open her up to a path of scholastic advancements, including a prestigious research award among the nation’s best.

Her love for biology and plant life “grew roots” after her first botany course at SHSU.

“My previous experience in the garden, despite the scratches and rashes, allowed me to be familiar with the world outside of the textbook,” said Cannon.

Afterwards, during every visit home she thirsted for more knowledge.

“I began listening intently when my mom would speak about her garden,” she said. “Suddenly, talk about the weather or soil and plant growth wasn’t ranting anymore but simply evaluating data.”

Her passion for first-hand research was just as strong for academics. Long days of classes and exams made the desire even stronger to return to the greenhouse and “get her hands dirty,” according to Cannon.

In fall 2009, Cannon took her interest in botany to the next level when she was presented with the opportunity to join the research lab of Christopher Randle, assistant professor of biological sciences.

In the lab, she learned how to conduct fieldwork, collect data and other research techniques involving plant life. Outside of the lab, she frequently read scientific literature and familiarized herself with new innovations in the field of biological research.

“The knowledge I continue to acquire while working with Dr. Randle has made the experience such a wonderful and invaluable opportunity,” Cannon said.

Brandi CannonAs an undergraduate, Cannon does not limit her work with plant research to the fall and spring semesters.

She has spent the past two summers of her college career furthering her knowledge of the field and landing one-of-a kind research experiences all over the globe.

In 2011, Cannon traveled to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to partake in her first small field research experience under SHSU’s Justin Williams, assistant professor of biological sciences. Upon her return to the university, she spent the remainder of the summer extracting DNA alongside SHSU graduate students.

The summer before, she spent 10-weeks in Ithaca, N.Y., a part of Cornell University’s Research Experience for Undergraduates internship, sponsored by the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research. During the program, Cannon worked within the university’s genetics lab conducting research on numerous plant molecular biology topics.

Following the experience, Cannon decided to apply for SHSU’s Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program. The program is designed for talented low-income, first-generation and ethnic minority undergraduate students who seek to earn doctoral degrees in their fields of study.

“I was motivated to apply to the McNair scholars program because so many well-respected professors from Cornell University had recommended it,” said Cannon. “They gave insistent acclamations about the program, with nothing but good things to say about it.”

The high levels of anxiety she felt upon interviewing for the well-respected program is something she will never forget.

“I can still remember shaking nervously as I switched my flip-flops to heels before the interview,” Cannon said. “I had wanted to be in the program so bad and had my hopes so high that after the first time I stumbled my speech I thought I had completely blown it.”

Once accepted, she was glad she had listened to the advice of her internship mentors. The program provided her with the funds to travel all across the nation to attend scientific conferences, visit graduate schools and expand her network of fellow researchers.

“It was almost like an undergraduate’s fantasy to not only have such incredible resources at your fingertips, but also to have valuable guidance from esteemed professors at your own university,” she said. “The program has been nothing but a blessing for me.”

Through the program she also gained her prestigious recognition among fellow McNair scholars throughout the nation.

During the University of Delaware’s 9th Annual National McNair Scholars Research Conference, Cannon was recognized with the “Outstanding Research Award” after presenting last fall on findings she had gathered from her biological research at SHSU.

“This is such a noteworthy accomplishment for Brandi and for Sam Houston's McNair Scholars Program because Brandi's research and presentation skills were deemed superior amongst dozens of other scholars, and she excelled in a scholarly venue in which she participated with other scholars and faculty from across the country,” said Lydia Fox, director of the McNair scholars program.

Her presentation centered on her work with the parasitic plant Phorandedron serotinum. Commonly known as leafy mistletoe, she encountered the specimen of her award-winning research on the SHSU campus, where it grows abundantly.

“My research is a continuation from previous experiments concerning how mistletoe finds its host by sensing mechanisms such as light and physical substrates and chemical volatiles,” Cannon said. “We narrowed down our options and conducted the experiments on trees all around campus, testing whether mistletoe seedling's growth and development are influenced by these factors.”

With the assistance of the McNair program, Cannon plans to pursue a graduate degree in a field of biological science she believes could be “her calling to the world,” ethno botany, which studies the relationship that exist between plants and people.

Currently, Cannon intends to use the last break before her senior year begins to broaden her knowledge of ethno botany and pursue an internship that will allow her to fuel her passion into something that could potentially better the world.

“I plan to travel internationally in order to identify new plants and discover their medicinal purposes,” she said. “I want to explore a new chapter in my work, something that will be advantageous for millions of people throughout the world.”

In addition to the McNair program, Cannon is also involved in a wide range of other activities at SHSU.

Since her freshman year, Cannon has been a part of various student organizations such as Bearkat Learning Community, Chinese Club, Community Leaders and Student Partners, Project Homestead, and the Elliott T. Bowers Honors College.

She has also taken on various leadership roles in other organizations such as the university’s quidditch team and Plastic Bottles and Junk, SHSU’s first and only recycling organization, which Cannon founded herself.

“I am thankful I have been able to make my mark on Sam Houston State University,” said Cannon. “But even more so, the university as well as the McNair program have made their marks on me.”



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