UAH junior Caroline Bendickson honored as Goldwater Scholar for work in plant genomics

A picture of Caroline Bendickson, a chemistry and biology major at The University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Caroline Bendickson, a chemistry and biology major at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), received a Goldwater Scholarship for her work in plant genomics. She analyzed the DNA sequences of Trillium, an important genus of plant species in southeastern U.S. forests.
Michael Mercier | UAH

Caroline Bendickson, a junior at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), has been selected as a Goldwater Scholar for her work in plant genomics. A double major in chemistry and biology with a minor in math, she is UAH’s third Goldwater Scholar in the past four years. UAH is a part of The University of Alabama System.

The Goldwater Scholarship program “was designed to identify, encourage, and financially support outstanding undergraduates interested in pursuing research careers in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics … and is the preeminent undergraduate award of its type in these fields,” according to the Goldwater website.

Trillium cuneatum at the Huntsville Botanical Garden
Caroline Bendickson photographed this example of Trillium cuneatum at the Huntsville Botanical Garden.
Courtesy Caroline Bendickson

“I’m very interested in working with DNA, our genetic code,” Bendickson says, “but instead of just taking short pieces of that DNA, I am interested in exploring the entire sequence that makes up whatever organism I’m studying.”

For Goldwater consideration, she presented her work analyzing the DNA sequences of Trillium, an important genus of plant species in southeastern U.S. forests. Trillium “is a nationally recognized emblem of conservation concern with approximately 15 species presently ranked as high conservation priorities,” she noted in her application.

As a member of Dr. Alex Harkess’s lab for plant evolutionary genetics at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, Bendickson led the lab’s project to explore the genetic relationships among Trillium species. Since Trillium genomes are almost 10 times as large as the human genome, her work yielded a significant amount of data.

An important part of her professional goal involves developing publicly available genetic resources, such as her completed Trillium phylogeny, which can easily be used by other researchers. She is currently working on a manuscript to publish her Trillium phylogeny research.

Bendickson plans to pursue a Ph.D. in genomics and bioinformatics, an interdisciplinary field of science that develops methods and software tools for understanding biological data, especially when the data sets are large and complex – as with Trillium.

"We’re generating large amounts of biological data with the (DNA) sequencing technologies that we've been able to develop in the past two to three decades,” she says. “It’s not possible for one scientist to manually process all that data anymore. So, we’re using the techniques of computer science with applications toward biological questions.”

Through bioinformatics, researchers like Bendickson can turn these large amounts of data into effective tools.

“A lot of what the current work is doing is developing these genomic resources which we can use in a wide range of studies, no matter what field of biology they’re specifically used in. By having a larger volume of data, genomes are much more powerful as a resource.”

Bendickson aims to combine her passion for genetic research with her dedication to educating and mentoring future scientists. The mentors who have helped her succeed at UAH have fueled her dedication.

Among these mentors is Harkess, whom she met when she participated in HudsonAlpha’s Biotech Academy while still a student at James Clemens High School.

“I was torn between education and biology as careers,” she recalls, “but I really focused in on biology because I saw how it could be used both to educate people and to fulfill that scientific interest that I had.”

Bendickson appreciates the opportunities and flexibility she has found at UAH.

“UAH has given me a lot of opportunities to explore my interests. Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field, so I need a variety of skills in statistics, computer science, biology, and chemistry. By having a really flexible biology degree, which allows me to choose the electives which make up the bulk of my biology requirements, I’ve been able to use research for academic credits. I've been able to take a wide variety of classes, and I’ve tailored my degree to what I need for graduate school.

“We also have a great collaboration with HudsonAlpha in the departments at UAH. This has pushed me to get involved in research. I think the collaboration with HudsonAlpha was a huge aspect of my decision to go here.”

Bendickson’s next step at UAH also involves HudsonAlpha.

“I’ve been accepted to the BioTrain Internship program at HudsonAlpha. That’s an exciting opportunity where I’ve been able to join the Myers Lab, and I’ll study neurodegenerative diseases using genomic technologies.”