PSS Spring '09 - The Houghton House Renaissance

From Theory to Practice

HWS students put their education to work


Melisa Backus '10 researched plant fungi at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva.

Melisa Backus '10 researched plant fungi at the New York State
Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva.

Whether in environmental science or biology, geoscience or chemistry, hands-on learning is a must in any science field.

"Medical schools, graduate school programs in science, and research and health professions employers are all looking for diversity of background and experience," says Mark Deutschlander, associate professor of biology and chair of the Health Professions Committee. "Experience outside the classroom is becoming more and more important."

"Graduate schools and employers want to see well-roundedness," says Renee Nearpass, assistant director of health professions counseling and fellowship advising at HWS.

This summer, HWS student-scientists like Melissa Backus '10, Gillian Meade '11 and Cullen White '11 continued to round out their education as they shaped the future of farming at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) in Geneva, a division of Cornell University.

Thanks to a recent grant from the Brenda and David Rickey Foundation, the trio spent the summer studying everything from apples to shrubs.

Working with Larry Smart, associate professor of horticultural sciences at Cornell, White researched the Willow Project, which he says, "focuses on the genetics and physiology of the willow shrub. The ultimate goal of the project is the deployment of elite varieties of willows as an important bioenergy crop in New York State."

Through summer research opportunities like this, Smart says, "Students learn to ask the questions themselves and think critically about how to address them, rather than being fed questions and protocols in a structured lab class."

"Students aren't having their hands held in this kind of internship," says Jim Ryan, professor of biology and former chair of the Health Professions Committee. "They discuss ideas with the faculty researchers but the research is their own."

"Students also quickly realize that experiments don't always produce the expected results, so they begin to understand the importance of controls and experimental troubleshooting," says Smart. "Cullen brought an excellent work ethic and degree of professionalism; he was very flexible in adapting to the work we needed to accomplish this summer."

Meade, a biology and environmental science double major, worked at NYSAES with the USDA Plant Genetic Resources Unit on a genetic fingerprinting project for apple populations. Her project focused on polymearse chain reactions in order to "fingerprint" alleles-the alternative forms of a particular gene- and analyze the data produced from that reaction. After graduation, Meade plans to enter the research field, but says she's still exploring options. "This research opportunity allowed me to test the waters and see if genetics could be something I would be interested in as a career."

And this, Ryan says, is another big part of independent summer research. "Students often know they want to do research but not exactly what kind," Ryan says. "While doing research, faculty members guide them and help narrow their field of interest."

Trying to focus her interests, Backus juggled several different projects at NYSAES. A double major in classics and ancient Greek and a double minor in biology and health care professions, she researched botrytis, a fungus ruining onion crops, and the Phytophthora Blight, a water mold and enemy of pumpkin and squash crops.

"At the Ag Station, I was able to interact with faculty and farmers, and performed research in the lab that could make a difference-it was a wonderful experience," says Backus.

"A research experience tells the people reviewing applications many things," says Deutschlander. "That you're an independent thinker, that you can convey your research and ideas to the public, that you have the skills of leadership and self-motivation, and that you can carry a project to completion."

The Rickey Foundation Supports Summer Research
The Rickey Foundation recently approved a three year, $45,000 grant to support students in the HWS Summer Science Research Program who are undertaking research projects at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) in Geneva, a division of Cornell University.

The foundation's support marks the first time the summer program has received funds specifically earmarked for projects performed at the NYSAES.

Starting in the summer of 2009, a grant from the Rickey Foundation is given in annual increments of $15,000 to support three students from the Colleges' science departments. Student funding will cover a modest stipend, housing, a food allowance, supplies and, occasionally, travel to a national conference to present research results. Students will conduct eight to ten weeks of research on a predetermined project within their given fields under the guidance of Cornell faculty mentors at Geneva's NYSAES.


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.