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Dianella Howarth, Ph.D.

Dianella Howarth
Professor of Biological Sciences

Botanist Expands Impressive Record of Accomplishments

Growing up in Hawaii, Dianella Howarth, Ph.D., became interested in how flowers evolved and diversified for her seventh-grade science project. Now an associate professor of biological sciences at St. John’s University, Dr. Howarth has built an impressive record of scholarship and teaching that addresses this same issue. Her research has brought her all over the world, including Panama, Indonesia, and Australia, and has helped her secure more than $1.1 million in national funding. Most recently, she and her research team have published their findings in the October 2017 issue of Applications in Plant Sciences, a major journal in the field.

In the article, entitled “The Unexpected Depths of Genome-Skimming Data: A Case Study Examining Goodeniaceae Floral Symmetry Genes,” Dr. Howarth and her colleagues present a new data mining technique, and then apply that technique to retrieve DNA sequence from genes that influence the unique floral structures of the plant family Goodeniaceae. According to the Botanical Society of America, this research “allows for important questions to be answered with existing data, and opens the door to scientists without access to the resources to produce large-scale data sets – for example, scientists at smaller colleges or countries without large grant-making bodies. As DNA sequence data continue to flood in, studies such as this point to ways to make sure we don’t let valuable information float by.”

In 2015, Dr. Howarth was awarded her third National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in the amount of $367,284 for the proposal, “Collaborative Research Transitions and Transcriptomics: A Novel Approach to Understanding Shifts in Floral Developmental Pathways Preceding the Origin of the Pentapetalae.” She submitted the proposal to the NSF’s Phylogenetic Systematics program, which supports research that addresses significant questions about organismal evolution using phylogenetic approaches, and that focuses primarily on investigating the origins of biodiversity and resolving relationships among species.

“I was going to take a break (from grant submissions), but then one of my post-docs had a great project idea, so we sent a pre-proposal to NSF,” said Dr. Howarth. “I keep going forward with my research because it’s important to me to figure out how certain plants work before we lose them to extinction.”

The funding will allow Dr. Howarth’s lab, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Florida, to explore genetic changes from nearly 100 million years ago that led to the diversification of 70 percent of flowering plants (approximately 170,000 modern species). Using laser capture microdissection to extract RNA from cells, the researchers are sequencing genomic information from species related to this transition in the hopes of determining how the typical Pentapetalae flower arrived at its current five-part structure with concentric floral whorls that have clearly defined sepals, petals, stamens, and carpels. Since flowering plants are the most abundant and diverse form of plant life on Earth, this discovery promises to reveal one of the major mysteries of plant evolution.

“Plants are a great place to study evolution and how diversity happens,” said Dr. Howarth. “You don’t come across the same research issues you do with human or animal subjects.”

The most recent grant is Dr. Howarth’s third award from the NSF in five years. In 2011, she was granted $550,000 for her abstract, “The Role of Gene Duplication in the Floral Symmetry Pathway in Dipsacales.” In 2012, she received $225,000 for her collaborative work on the evolutionary history of the Australian plant family Goodeniaceae and traveled to Australia to study Goodeniaceae in its native soil. Dr. Howarth’s overall total of secured NSF funding to date is $1,142,284. This is a huge honor considering that for each pre-proposal, only 20 percent of applicants are typically invited to submit a full proposal, and of those, only 20 percent receive funding.

Associate Dean and Biological Sciences colleague Laura Schramm, Ph.D., commended Dr. Howarth on her record of achievement: “The University should be very proud of Dr. Howarth’s scholarship! Dr. Howarth has an extraordinary research funding record; she has secured three NSF research grants in less than five years totaling over $1.1 million. Her most recent grant will most assuredly push the field of floral development pathways to new heights.”

One of the keys to her success, said Dr. Howarth, is having an incredibly supportive environment in which to teach and conduct research. “At St. John’s, people are genuinely happy for you when you do well,” she noted. “I’ve found more collegial support here than at any other university. It makes coming to work a joy.”

When she’s not busy drafting grant proposals and publishing research, Dr. Howarth can be found sharing her love of biology with her students, who range from first-year to post-doctoral. “Another thing I love about St. John’s is that the students aren’t inhibited with their questions,” she said. “Even in the big lecture courses, we get such great discussions going that it becomes more of a dialogue. Those moments when you really engage the students are pretty magical.”

Dr. Howarth holds a B.A. in Biology from the University of Pennsylvania and Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University. She was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship from Yale University. In addition to teaching core Biology, Dr. Howarth is the director of the Environmental Studies program at SJU.