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Fall 2012
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Geneva Summer Research Program Brings Science Careers into Focus

By Sarah Thompson

Summer scholar Steve Bruening looks for disease symptoms on tomato plants for his project on the genetics of blight-causing Phytophthora capsici.
Photo Robyn Wishna

Summer scholar Steve Bruening looks for disease symptoms on tomato plants for his project on the genetics of the blight-causing Phytophthora capsici.

In 2009, plant pathology and plant-microbe biology (PPPMB) faculty members Christine Smart, Harvey Hoch, Marc Fuchs, and Herb Aldwinckle spearheaded a grassroots effort to provide undergraduate science students the opportunity to explore the plant sciences through hands-on field and lab work. The gamble paid off; in three years the Geneva Summer Research Scholars program has grown from eight students to 28, boasts three Cornell graduate students who were former scholars, and is self-sustaining thanks to participation from the Departments of Horticulture, Entomology, and PPPMB.

“The faculty bought into the program because we select good scholars,” said program co-organizer Herb Aldwinckle. “The students are here because they truly want to be.”

This summer, students spent nine weeks at Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva working on what Smart described as an “incredibly diverse” set of projects in plant pathology, horticulture, and entomology. Most focused on important regional crops like grapes, cabbage, and apples and the diseases and pests that can damage them.

The 2012 cohort included students from across the United States, and for many, this was their first taste of field work. Jane Petzoldt, a biology and environmental studies major from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, worked on a joint entomology and horticulture project to identify which genes in the shrub willow—a plant being developed as a regional biofuel—provide it with resistance to damage from the potato leafhopper, a common pest. Ashley Williams, a plant science major from Southern University in Louisiana, examined the effects of extreme cold and hot temperatures on the fungus that causes grape powdery mildew, and Tyler McCann, a botany and geography major from the University of Florida, studied how light exposure affects fungal growth and spore production on grape leaves.

“This was my first summer research program,” McCann said. “It was a phenomenal experience to go from the lab to seeing the applied aspect of disease control in the vineyard.”

Putting theory into practice is central to the scholars’ program experience. Eight field classes introduced them to farmers, extension agents, and how their work makes a difference on the ground. The program also gives scholars full ownership of their projects: They are responsible for background research as well as data collection and analysis, and they present their findings to faculty, graduate students, and each other during a poster session at the program’s end. The program’s organizers do not measure success by research alone but also by the impact they have on young scientists.

“We wanted to attract undergraduates from across the country, to offer them opportunities to learn about plant diseases and research, and for them to learn about career paths,” said Fuchs, program co-organizer. “This program is a fantastic opportunity to explore the possibilities.”

The inherent value in that opportunity—for scholars, graduate student mentors, faculty, and the future of the scientific field—is why Smart, Fuchs, and Aldwinckle call it a “win-win situation.”