Botany graduate student Robin O’Quinn is interested in characterizing the morphological diversity of the plant species Claytonia sibirica. C. sibirica has a wide range, extending as far north as the Commander Islands, off the coast of Siberia. But in parts of its range, populations show differences. The great botanist Asa Gray, who classified many of the plants in the Pacific Northwest, identified a peculiar member of the group in the Klamath region of southern Oregon, naming it Claytonia bulbifera. But 10 years later, he demoted the plant to a variety of Claytonia sibirica.

O’Quinn was intrigued by this bulb-forming variety that grows on drier hillsides and sunnier sites. Part of her comparison of the bulbous and non-bulbous forms involves characterizing the morphology, or basic shape, of the developing leaves. Is it, she asked, something that can be characterized early in its development, or does the difference develop later on? Such analysis helps clarify the classification of a plant.

O’Quinn took this electron-microscope photograph as part of a class that the Electron Microscopy Center offers every semester. According to the center’s Valerie Lynch-Holm, students are taught the basics of scanning electron microscopy and then “turned loose.”

O’Quinn says she could never have accomplished what she has in her research without the class. “What I take with me as a researcher, having had free use of that equipment, is phenomenal.”

The photomicrographs that she actually used in her analysis were shot from more prosaic angles for comparison. The image above was purely aesthetic, she says. “I’m pretty helpless when it comes to beautiful things and a really cool camera.”

O’Quinn hopes that clarifying the varietal status of Claytonia sibirica var. bulbillifera in southern Oregon will “give policy makers and conservationists more incentive for protecting regions of that area. It’s very, very special.”