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New chair in biology aims to elevate program to new heights


OXFORD, Mississippi — Sixue Chen, an accomplished biology researcher and incoming chair of the Department of Biology at the University of Mississippi, plans to use agricultural research and outreach to elevate the program nationwide.

Chen, who specializes in the biology of plant stress response systems, came to UM from the University of Florida, where he conducted research on understanding more efficient plant mechanisms with the aim of improve domestic farming practices.

Her research is driven by her childhood experience of growing up on a farm, but paradoxically having little to eat. Chen believes that studying topics such as the function of microscopic pores on the surface of plant leaves can reveal ways to improve agricultural practices and water conservation.

Sixue Chen, new director of the Department of Biology, studies the mechanisms of more efficient plants with the aim of improving agricultural practices. Photo by Julia Dent

This approach could help combat both world hunger and the looming freshwater crisis as the climate becomes more arid and less conducive to current farming methods.

“One way to help end food insecurity is to make plants more resistant to stress,” he said. “After domesticating agricultural crops, farmers give these plants tons of water, which takes up 70% of our freshwater resources.

“They don’t plan to make the plants more drought resistant because they assume there will always be plenty of water, but that’s not the case anymore. Countries all over the world are experiencing drought conditions, so my lab wants plants to use water more efficiently, like cacti.

Another concern with modern farming practices is the effects of hazardous chemicals used in agriculture, Chen said. Some of these products increase the likelihood of cancer, as carcinogens, in humans who consume the products or otherwise encounter the pesticides or herbicides.

This is a major concern as cancer is the second leading cause of death in the country, behind heart disease.

Although he only recently joined the Ole Miss faculty, Chen already has a passion for helping the community and the state – with a primary focus on the future generation of scholars.

“We are a flagship university, so how can we help our citizens get out of poverty? ” he said. “If we encourage early childhood education – get kids excited about learning science and getting an education – I think that’s a way out of poverty.

“I was a really poor kid growing up; at that time, the only way out of poverty was through education.

Chen hopes to propagate a community of diverse and science-loving scholars at the university.

“Connections are important; social and academic events to bring people together offer more and more opportunities – not just for people, but potentially for the whole world,” he said.

“The relationships you make in college can become job opportunities or other collaborative opportunities to advance your career or science, as we later know, all because a student was given the chance to talk to someone with similar interests at their university. ”

Chen’s work promises to improve education and research across the College of Liberal Arts and the entire university, said Donald Dyer, associate dean for faculty and academic affairs and distinguished professor of modern languages. .

“His disciplinary expertise will translate into valued leadership and his experience will serve the department well in terms of mentorship and future departmental success.” A successful researcher and scholar, he will oversee, among other things, one of the college’s largest faculties and one of the largest undergraduate majors.