Tara Cicic '18 and Associate Professor of Biology Wei-Jen Chang examine peonies in Grant Garden.

From 1920 to 1940, Professor of Chemistry Arthur Percy Saunders hybridized herbaceous and tree peonies in the Root Glen at Hamilton College, a process which resulted in the creation of 73 named varieties. The Grant Garden, planted by Elihu Root for his daughter Edith, was renovated in 1996 specifically to display Saunders’ peonies, which Hamilton continues to collect and display with the aid of the American Peony Society.

about tara cicic '18

Major: Biology

Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.

High School: Stuyvesant High School

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This summer, Tara Cicic ’18, a biology major, will be spending a good deal of time in Grant Garden, collecting samples from Saunders’ peonies, and genotyping them.

By analyzing particular loci (the chromosomal position of a gene) in the chloroplast and nuclear DNA of the various samples, Cicic, over time, will be able to establish the parent strains from which each sample of garden peony was hybridized, thus creating a complete parental history of the garden.

“I was drawn to this project in part because of its connection to Hamilton and Hamilton’s history. Saunders hybridized his peonies here on this campus, so it is very cool to go back as a student nearly a century later and interpret his work,” said Cicic. Besides Grant Garden, Cicic has additional access to Saunders’ work through the Hamilton archives which contain the former professor’s research.

Past work and present research merge on campus, pointing to a possible future in genomics for Cicic. By working in the lab at a small, undergraduate institution, instead of at a large research hospital where she has worked previously, Cicic, without the intermediary of graduate students, is able to collaborate more personally with her advisor, Sidney Wertimer Associate Professor of Biology Wei-Jen Chang.

Though there are preset guidelines for the experiment, there are also many ways to go about achieving the desired result, leaving Cicic the responsibility to establish the most efficient protocol for processing dozens of varieties of peony.

Because of the scale of such a project, the research Cicic does this summer will extend into her thesis, a study of genomics. “Even though I will be working with plants not people, in many ways, I am being introduced to extremely applicable and relevant practices. Genomics is becoming a significant part of medicine, a field increasingly focused on how our genes affect our lives, behavior, and health,” said Cicic.

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