Exploding Flower Has Oberlin Roots

Photos by Joan Edwards, Dwight Whitaker, Sarah Klionsky and Marta J. Laskowski

Newspaper readers around the world learned a fact that assistant biology professor Marta Laskowski has known for years: plants can be cool.

One such plant is the bunchberry dogwood, which media hyped as the “exploding flower” or “fastest plant on Earth” just hours after the journal Nature released its May 12 issue publicizing the research of Laskowski and three colleagues. The team used high-speed video imaging to capture the opening of the plant’s flower, which is the fastest plant movement recorded by scientists to date.

“The bunchberry flower can open in under 0.4 milliseconds—which is several hundred times speedier than the snap of a Venus Flytrap,” says Laskowski. “This plant is tremendously exciting and just goes to show how much we have left to discover in the natural world.”

Williams College field biologist Joan Edwards, along with undergraduate student Sarah Klionsky, accidentally discovered the rapid opening of the dogwood flowers while doing field work in Michigan. Curious to understand how the explosion occurred, Edwards called on Laskowski, a plant biologist, and Dwight Whitaker, a physicist.

Laskowski explains that as the flowers burst open, the petals quickly separate and flip back, exposing the stamens. Within 0.3 milliseconds, the stamens accelerate at a speed up to 800 times the force experienced by astronauts during take-off.

A specialized catapult design—which resembles a medieval trebuchet—allows the stamens to shoot their pollen 2.5 centimeters into the air, or 10 times the height of the flower. The pollen then becomes carried away by the wind or embedded on the bodies of insects, which transfer it to other flowers.

The intense media interest in the team’s findings was helped along by videos of the exploding flower that swept the Internet. Even the Guiness Book of World Records got in on the action; the flower will appear in its 2007 edition.

“Having an article published in Nature has been a fantastic experience,” says Laskowski. “The project demonstrates what a wonderful place Oberlin is for doing science.”

Photo by Darryl Polk

No Small Problem: In the most prestigious collegiate mathematics competition in the U.S. and Canada—which sets only 12 problems in calculus, geometry, and abstract algebra—more than half of all competitors score zero. “The most exciting part of the process is simply finishing a problem,” says May graduate Jon Hirsch, a triple major in mathematics, East Asian studies, and economics, who tied with Chris Burns ’05 as Oberlin’s top scorers in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition. Each placed in the top 11 percent of the 3,733 contestants.

“The only way you can really prepare is by working with problems similar to the ones you might encounter on the test,” says Burns, a double-degree major in mathematics and trombone. Three other Oberlin students placed in the top 600, with the team finishing 33rd out of the 515 competing institutions. Burns and Hirsch also earned Oberlin’s John D. Baum Memorial Prize in Mathematics, awarded annually to the student with the highest score on the Putnam. “I got my name on a plaque in the math department, which is better than the award money,” says Burns.

Wave Makers

Photo by Darryl Polk

Matthew Aaron Kaplan ’07
Majors: Law and Society, Politics
Hometown: Claremont, California

At the end of basketball season, sophomore power forward Matt Kaplan faced the weighty decision of choosing a summer internship. His options were impressive: a stint in the front office of the Boston Celtics; a sports reporting job for either CBS Sports or Fox Sports West; a post with a sports agency in Newport Beach, California; or work with a local congressman. “I chose CBS in New York,” says Kaplan, “where so far I’ve covered the NBA draft and the WBNA and interviewed the U.S. Open golf winner in the Green Room of the Late Show with David Letterman.”

Why journalism? Journalism is my passion; it’s my voice. Sports writing is not only about reporting who scored a touchdown; it’s about expressing ideas and disseminating information to a wide and varied audience.

The tension that exists between power and objectivity in journalistic writing intrigues me. The excitement of seeing your writing published is tempered by a responsibility to be as factual and objective as possible. Learning to be a journalist has given me the confidence to go into un-known situations, break them down, and examine them in new ways. Journalism is far more than putting words on a blank screen; it is putting your byline on life.

Background? I was the sports editor of my high school newspaper and was inducted into the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. I also wrote for the Claremont/Upland Voice, a former affiliate of the Los Angeles Times. At Oberlin, I spent winter term with LA Times veteran Eric Sodenheimer, traveling to major sporting events in Southern California. Afterward, I had a feature article on legendary basketball coach Mike Leduc published and wrote a feature article on Utah Jazz first-round draftee Kirk Snyder. I also had the opportunity to cover the NBA draft.

Dream job? After attending graduate school at Columbia University, I’d like to be a feature writer for a major newspaper or magazine and make television appearances to discuss the cultural, ethical, and global ramifications of the sporting world. I’d also like to cover the NCAA Final Four and tell the many untold stories and backgrounds of the players on each team.

Campus activities? I’ve served on Student Senate since my freshman year, and I’ll begin serving as junior class president this fall.

I’m also a senior RA in Barrows and Noah halls, a staff writer for Oberlin Online, a sports writer for the Oberlin Review, a writer for athletic department publications, and a student representative on the Admissions and Secondary Relations Committee, where I help review admission trends.
I’m also Oberlin’s representative for Project 360, a $5 million, brain-gain initiative designed to attract college students to Northeast Ohio and retain them in the work force after college. Finally, I volunteer with Lori Flood, assistant dean of students and director of health and life skills education, to educate students on the effects of drug and alcohol abuse.

Favorite classes? Technologies of Writing, a first-year seminar with Anne Trubek; Modern Moral Issues in Religious Perspective with Joyce McClure; and Cognitive Psychology.