Defined and driven by research

In high school, one of her teachers suggested that she go into scientific illustration. “I guess I was a good artist then,” says Dr. Julie Kang, a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Northern Iowa.
With a career in scientific illustration in mind, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in studio and fine arts, with art history as a minor, from McMaster University in Canada.
She then enrolled in the University of Toronto for a Bachelor of Science degree in biology, with a zoology minor.
However, in the course of her second bachelor’s degree, Dr. Kang took a class in plant anatomy that would shape her future.
“I really enjoyed my plant anatomy class, mostly because of my professor,” she recalls.
“I worked in her lab to do an undergraduate project. I just loved her research program and ended up working with plants.”
Thus, her career plan changed — exit scientific illustration, enter plant biology.
Dr. Kang completed her doctoral studies in plant biology from the University of Toronto, and went on to do postdoctoral work at the University of California, Davis, where she began to incorporate both the evolution of leaf and vascular development into her own research program.
Her next stop was the University of Northern Iowa.
“I wanted to be at a school where teaching and research were equally important to me,” she says. “UNI gave me the opportunity to do both, and that’s something that I that I have enjoyed by being here at UNI.”
Dr. Kang’s research emphasizes the strong link between evolutionary and development processes. “We always talk about development but really you can’t think about development without thinking about how we got to that point,” she says.
In her laboratory at UNI, Dr. Kang and her students study development of leaf shape and vein pattern in evolutionarily related plant species that exhibit different leaf types.
“Leaf shape and vein patterning share genes,” she explains. “What we see is this conservation in vein patterning along with the leaf shape, regardless of whether it’s a compound leaf or a simple leaf.”
“It’s really just getting to the question: ‘why are vein patterns conserved between species?’” she adds.
The answer to this question will help Dr. Kang and her students to uncover ancestral relationships between different plant species, and understand how developmental processes contribute to evolutionary changes.
Her most current research involves plants in the grape family Vitaceae. The group includes plants with a variety of leaf types—simple, compound, lobed—and there remain a number of unanswered questions about the evolution and development of leaf shape in this group of plants, Dr. Kang says.
She uses a morphometric computer software to analyze size and shape of leaves, and examines quantitatively how morphology and development correlate across different species.
Collaboration with other scientists is a high point of her research experience, Dr. Kang says. “What excites me is being able to collaborate. Going beyond UNI and doing collaborations with other researchers.”
“Everyone has different talents and different ideas,” she says. “When I’m able to make connections with other researchers, I think that’s what gets me really excited because it just takes your own research to another level.”
A recent collaboration, published in the journal Botany in 2013, investigated conserved traits and patterns of leaf shape development in two species of Ampelopsis, a genus in Vitaceae. The researchers looked at the differences in development of these species, examining how these differences may have influenced the divergent evolution observed in the mature plants.
Dr. Kang and her co-authors used epi-illumination light microscopy and scanning electron microscopy—two specialized techniques to view samples—in their research.
Though the two species compared ultimately exhibit different leaf shapes as mature plants (simple versus compound), the study shows that early developmental processes that control leaf shape are similar between the plants.
It also suggests that the most recent common evolutionary ancestor of the modern plants in Ampelopsis may have been a species with complex leaves, another type of leaf shape distinct from simple and compound leaves.
Be it in collaboration or on her own, research is ultimately what defines and drives Dr. Kang.  “I love research,” she says. “I love asking questions and seeking out answers to those questions.”
She also values working with students.
“I like it when they can ask a question and then they find the answer or solution, or figure out a new method in which to get to that answer,” Dr. Kang says. “I really like it when they get excited about their own projects.”

Ryan Lockard, Volunteer, UNI STEM