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Diversity and Inclusion

Power of Plants: Ph.D. Student Imani Madison

Imani Madison
Imani Madison

Plant cells are transformed as they differentiate, taking on specialized roles to help the plant function. Studying that process, and factors that can change it, fascinates Ph.D. candidate Imani Madison.

Heading into her final year of doctoral study, Madison is making the most of her research, learning and service opportunities as her own professional transformation continues.

The new president of the Plant Biology Graduate Association landed a summer internship with Novozymes.

A co-author of four published scientific papers, she will resume her dissertation work this fall.

She’s a peer mentor with undergraduates in the McNair Scholars Program that prepares first-generation college students and students from underrepresented groups for doctoral study. To make plant sciences more inclusive, she’s served on the American Society of Plant Biologists’ Minority Affairs Committee and she’s helped build a resource and online community for scientists from underrepresented groups through Plantae, a national plant biology society.

As this year’s announcement for Madison, winner of the Susan R. Vitello Award for Exemplary Service by Plant Biology Graduate Students, summed it up, “Although the Vitello Award exists to recognize graduate student service to the department, it is noteworthy that Imani’s service activities extend to the university and national levels.”

Power to Heal

In childhood, plants helped Madison flourish. When she was diagnosed with the vitamin D deficiency rickets, which weakens bones, her family added plant-based foods to her treatment.

“What was prescribed was an isolated vitamin D supplement,” Madison says. “But my family researched different foods, mostly grains, nuts and seeds, that had a lot of vitamin D and other vitamins.

“With that (diet) in combination with the supplement, my bones grew stronger and I could walk again, and the endocrinologist was very happy that my bones are back to normal, I can walk and I don’t have any lingering issues. Later on there have been more studies that show that it’s calcium with vitamins D, C and E that are needed. In the grains, nuts and seeds, there are all of those vitamins and minerals.”

Ever since, Madison says she’s been curious about the potential that plants hold for applications in medicine, textiles and many other fields.

“In a scientific sense, I think plants are a great avenue to study. They’re not as well appreciated, so there’s a lot of work to do in terms of what I can contribute and in terms of the nutrition side of things with plants.”

Power to Inspire

While completing a bachelor’s degree in biology at Washington University in St. Louis, Madison took a seminar on scientific careers designed with Black and Latinx students in mind. The college dean and co-presenter helped students find lab jobs to gain research experience for graduate school and careers.

Madison worked in biologist Lucia Strader’s lab with the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, receiving an undergraduate travel award to a national conference from the North American Arabidopsis Steering Committee. The conference, which took place while she was applying to graduate schools, introduced her to several people from NC State.

Around that time, she and her family visited a farm that produces organic tobacco and learned that NC State had helped the growers achieve consistent yields.

“That was really impressive to me, that there was a product that helped that community, especially in farming,” she says. “There seemed to be a focus on or investment in helping actual farming and other endeavors, and so that inspired me to apply.

“And when I came for the interviews, I had the sense, from the way in which I was treated, that they were very interested in me, and that it would be a good place to be training to be a potential colleague in the plant sciences and academia.”

Power to Discover

Terri Long, associate professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, was eager for Madison to join her lab, based on her undergraduate work with a longtime colleague.

Madison explored how iron deficiency affects cell differentiation in plants — which genes are involved and specific changes that occur.

“She just jumped right in there and has driven this project into something that I think would be a really exciting body of work,” Long says. “It’s her main project, but she also has two or three other things that she’s worked on. She’s got four publications already and will probably have several more before it’s all said and done. I’ve just been really pleased by her progress.”

Madison won financial support for her studies through a National Institutes of Health/NC State Molecular Biology Training Program.

While research was a strength, Madison, who describes herself as reserved, wondered how she’d handle teaching. Fortunately, she enjoys it.

“I’ve watched her over the last few years, and she works a lot with undergraduate students and they love her,” Long says. “I mean, she’s very patient, very kind and so it doesn’t surprise me. I’m really happy to hear that she’s liking teaching.”

Power to Transform

A travel scholarship funded networking opportunities for Madison. Now she’s investing her time in building lasting connections among students and plant scientists from underrepresented groups as the lead for Plantae’s Changing Cultures and Climates Adventitious Roots Discord Server.

“The benefit I see to this ongoing effort that we have been working with recently is that it’s more of a 365-days-a-year outreach,” she says. “It’s good to make connections every year at the conferences, but in between that, this can really help fill in that gap.”

She hopes her work in creating resources and community will continue to support Black, Indigenous and Latinx plant scientists for years to come.

And in 2022, she plans to graduate and seek a postdoctoral position, the next step in her academic career.