• Cozette Palmer, Class of 2017, works closely researching basil with Professor of Chemistry Emily Niemeyer.
    Cozette Palmer, Class of 2017, works closely researching basil with Professor of Chemistry Emily Niemeyer.

Professor of Chemistry Emily Niemeyer is conducting extensive research with students on herbs within the Lamiaceae family, which includes many commonly used household herbs (basil, mint, oregano, etc.). One Summer Collaborative Opportunities and Experiences (SCOPE) group is focusing on three different cultivars of green basil: Sweet basil, Italian Large Leaf, and Nufar F1. The students are specifically examining how the plants’ antioxidant chemical properties vary when they are harvested at different points of their growth cycle.

“We’ve looked at some other studies with purple basil, and they [the researchers] have grown theirs to flowering,” says Cozette Palmer, Class of 2017, who is working with Professor Niemeyer. “They found that the antioxidant content was highest right before flowering, so we wanted to see if that would be something similar to our plants.”

Niemeyer says there has been very little research on this topic, which is why she and her students are pursuing the study. The students have grown nearly 200 basil plants from seeds in Southwestern’s greenhouse, and each week they harvest 15 plants to conduct various analyses.

“People are definitely interested in antioxidants, and what their levels are in different plants,” says Niemeyer. “Basil is something that’s used a lot for culinary purposes, and some of the chemicals contained in basil actually have medicinal properties.”

Niemeyer says many scientists are studying antioxidants because of their potential anti-cancer properties, and how they interact with cells. Her SCOPE team hopes to identify when each plant’s antioxidant levels are at their highest.

“You could imagine if a plant grows to a certain size and its antioxidant levels are at a maximum then that may be an optimum time to harvest,” says Niemeyer. “If you continue to let the plant grow another few weeks and it doesn’t get much bigger and its antioxidant levels are declining, you have lost some of the nutritional benefit gained from harvesting earlier.”

Following SCOPE, Niemeyer and her students will likely present their research at the American Chemical Society National Meeting. They also have plans to publish their work in a co-authored manuscript in a peer-reviewed journal focusing on agricultural and food chemistry. This type of exposure is what Palmer says makes Southwestern unique and allows students to take their undergraduate education to the next level.

“Publishing research is a great opportunity that many students do not get to do, especially so early in their career,” says Palmer. “I feel blessed and lucky to have such a great opportunity.”