Kara Mills


  • Time Zone

  • Organization
    The Ohio State University, Department of Plant Pathology

  • Role
    Scientist Mentor: I will mentor teams of students online

  • Research Interests (300 words)
    I am a plant pathologist, which means that I study plant diseases. There are many agents that can cause plant diseases such as viruses, fungi, and bacteria. When plants get sick, scientists have to figure out what caused the illness, how to stop the disease from spreading, and figure out what to do with the sick plants. My current research is on a fungus that is attacking wheat. This disease is affected by El Nino and it is spreading from South America across the planet to Asia. I’m trying to figure out how this disease spreads across a region and figure out what to do if it enters the USA. Although I’m a plant doctor right now, I am interested in all types of biology and have also been an ornithologist, geologist, and marine biologist! I have studied song sparrows in the Pacific Northwest; penguins in Argentina; rock formations in Alaska; and fish found in the Bering Sea.

  • Profile Question 1
    Can you share a funny/interesting lab or field story?

  • Answer the question you selected for profile question 1 here (300 words):
    When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Washington I was working in a song sparrow lab. We were researching how sparrows learn their complex birdsong by studying baby birds that were kept in insulated boxes. Instead of letting the baby birds learn how to sing from their parents, we put speakers in each box which would play birdsong to the young sparrows. To figure out what they were learning, we had a microphone in each box that would record them and we would listen to the recording. Most of the time the sparrows would sing a very similar song as the one we were playing for them. However, after a few weeks they started to sing a very weird long whistle that got louder and louder. We had never heard song sparrows make this noise before in the lab or in the wild. It took us months to figure out that they were copying the sound of the hand-held vacuum I would use to clean out their cages! Almost all of the birds added this strange vacuuming sound into their song, and we had to re-do the entire experiment.

  • Profile Question 2
    What is the coolest thing you have discovered or learned about plants?

  • Answer the question you selected for profile question 2 here (300 words):
    Did you know that plants can communicate with each other? The coolest story I've ever heard is about how thorn acacia plants in the African Savanna can protect themselves from herbivores. When a giraffe starts to chew on the leaves of a thorn acacia, the tree will react and start to produce more tannins in the leaves. You have probably tasted food with tannins in it- have you ever had plain black tea, coffee, or cocoa powder? These foods can be very bitter which is why many people add sugar to them. Part of why they are bitter is because they have tannins in them. Imagine the giraffe chewing on a tasty leaf, but when it moves to another branch the leaves begin to taste more and more bitter. The giraffe may not like the bitter tasting leaves, so it stops eating from that tree. The thorn acacia has successfully protected itself from the giraffe, and it also can send a warning to other acacias in the area that there is a hungry giraffe nearby! The thorn acacia that was chewed on releases a gas called ethylene that blows on the wind and encounters other thorn acacia trees. When these acacia trees have the ethylene hit the leaves, there is a signal that these leaves should produce more tannins and become bitter, too. I think that it's amazing that some trees can communicate about danger to other trees! Also, some acacias can convince ants to be bodyguards for them and defend the trees from herbivores- look up whistling thorn acacias and acacia ants!

  • Profile Question 3
    What is best about being a scientist?

  • Answer the question you selected for profile question 3 here (300 words):
    The best thing about being a scientist is that there are always interesting and surprising things happening! It is easy to be curious when something unexpected happens during an experiment. Many of the best discoveries were accidental- a scientist was trying to answer one question then something surprising happened that was a clue for a more interesting question! This has happened to me, too. When I was working in Bolivia on my research about a wheat disease caused by a fungus, I carefully set up an experiment to answer one question. However, the disease started to act in a strange way in my experiment and I realized that I had the chance to collect data on a completely different question that is much more important than the one I had planned for. A good scientist must be curious, creative, and paying attention to strange data that may be clues for other questions. I think being a scientist is fun and challenging!

  • Availability
    I am currently available for mentoring, please send me team match invitations

  • Capacity: How many teams at a time are you comfortable working with?

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