Luis Santos is fascinated by genetics and wants to work on cracking the puzzle of how to cure Alzheimer’s one day, so he’s spending this summer at Virginia Tech studying the DNA of blackberries.
“Plants have a mind of their own and you apply what you learn about them to so much in life,” said Santos, a junior from Arlington, Virginia, who is majoring in biology at Florida State University.
The many mysteries of plants and how they can be used to examine everything from studying DNA to feeding an ever-growing global population are at the center of a project this summer aimed at growing the next generation of scientists.
Santos is part of the Research Extension/Education and Experiential program the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is hosting. A group of eight students from universities across the East Coast are spending five weeks in labs on the Blacksburg campus followed by five weeks at one of the university’s Agricultural Research and Extension Centers (AREC). The aim is to give the students the combined experience of learning about a scientific problem in a laboratory setting and in the field, where they address agricultural issues in a real-world environment. The group will be presenting the research from their summer studies at the Office of Undergraduate Research symposium on July 27.
This is the first year of the four-year project that is funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Glenda Gillaspy, head of the Department of Biochemistry and the principal investigator on the project, said this experience will help set the students up for success as well as help build a pipeline of top-notch scientists who have the interdisciplinary skills needed to address the challenges that lie ahead.
“We are not going to knock out the big questions unless we train people who can take the basic science and translate it to solve real-world problems,” she said. “We realized a decade ago that we weren’t training graduates to do that, and this helps solve that need.”
Gillaspy is working with many fellow scientists and collaborators both in Blacksburg and at three ARECs around the state. Hunter Frame, an assistant professor in crop and soil environmental sciences based at the Tidewater AREC, is the co-principal investigator. Sasha Marine, a post-doctorate fellow in biochemistry, is directing the program on campus.
Gillaspy said this summer’s experience can be a life-changing experience because the students are involved in research at a top-tier university and working on projects funded by the National Science Foundation and others.
Gillasly should know the value of such programs. In high school, she traveled from her small hometown in Alabama to Berea College, where she spent the summer doing biology research alongside a professor. It changed her life and is one of the reasons she’s a scientist today.
Allison Coomber, a junior studying plant sciences at Cornell University, said the program was giving her an experience she never had. She was learning bioinformatics, computer coding, and genetics in David Haak’s Blacksburg lab before heading to the Tidewater AREC to work with Hillary Mehl, where she will be researching important plant pathogens that decrease crop yields each year.
“Working in both the lab and the field brings all the knowledge together,” said Coomber. “I’m fascinated by plants and their adaptability.”
She’s going to need all that knowledge, too, because Coomber, like the others in the program, has big aspirations.
“The biggest issue for my generation is feeding 9 billion people in the next 30 years,”
she said. “Some of my peers are focused on smaller problems, but I want to think globally and make life better for people who may not have enough food.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Hannah Sawyer, a junior from Virginia State University who is studying agriculture and agricultural education. Sawyer said she loved working in the lab and then heading to the field to put her knowledge to work. She wants to lead a life of service and said that going into the science of agriculture is a great avenue to do this.
“I want to do something for the world,” Sawyer said. “And I feel like agriculture is the best way I can help.”