UMass Amherst Distinguished Faculty Lecture Features Plant Biologist Alice Y. Cheung on the ‘Social Drama’ of Plant Reproduction

Alice Y. Cheung

AMHERST, Mass. – Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology Alice Y. Cheung will bring the Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series at the University of Massachusetts Amherst back to birds-and-bees basics on Tuesday, March 25.

She describes her lecture, titled “The Birds and the Bees: How Do Flowering Plants Produce Seeds?” as a story of “high drama detailing the scheming by the female to lure or reject a mate and a tour-de-force journey of the male to target and fertilize a female.” It will take place at 4 p.m. in the Massachusetts Room at UMass Amherst’s Mullins Center. Following her talk, Cheung will receive the Chancellor’s Medal, the highest recognition given for service to the campus.

Cheung’s research focuses on the mating games that go on inside a flower. Her lecture will examine these interactive events, captured in photographs, which lead to the production of seeds, the life form that ensures preservation of an ecologically balanced planet and provides food to feed its people.

“Our laboratory has been on a long journey to learn about how these reproductive acts are accomplished, said Cheung. “The story I tell will be about the sweets the female makes, the elaborate cellular growth engine the pollen tube assembles to respond to these baits, grow and steer to reach its target, and ultimately how the pollen tube meets its own demise in siring the next generation.”

Cheung completed her undergraduate work in biochemistry at Smith College, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale. She was then awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship for work at Harvard before returning to Yale as a member of the biology department faculty.

Cheung joined the UMass Amherst department of biochemistry and molecular biology in 1997. She received the campus’ Research Leadership Award in 2010 and the Outstanding Research Award in 2012. She was named an American Society of Plant Biology Fellow in 2010. She has written or co-authored scores of research articles in the field of plant biology.

Still, Cheung said there is a lot to learn about the fundamental “social drama of male and female courtship that goes on inside a flower,” and her lab is working hard on elucidating not only the players but also the mechanisms of their actions.

“I look forward to sharing with the community on campus a scientifically fascinating and visually stunning journey inside a flower, the knowledge of which should help ensure preservation of plant species for an ecologically balanced planet with enough food to feed its populations,” she said.

James Kurose of the computer science department will deliver the final talk in the in the 2013-14 Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series at UMass Amherst on Wednesday, April 9. All lectures in the series are free and open to the public.