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Summer scholars hosted by CALS learn about careers

Mon, 06/20/2011 - 12:26pm
Cornell University

Elite undergraduates from universities around the United States are working on food science and plant pathology research projects in Cornell labs this summer, as well as venturing into such venues as irrigation ditches and wine cellars, vineyards and golf courses.

"The Food Science Summer Scholars Program was launched in 2000 in response to a shortage of qualified scientists in the food industry," said Carmen Moraru, associate professor of food science and co-director of the Food Science Summer Scholar Program. "We hope to not only introduce undergraduates to food science research, but also to help them seriously consider graduate study and a career in the food industry."

The draw is a combination of 10 weeks of independent research, mentoring by Cornell faculty and career development from food industry giants, including PepsiCo and Kraft Foods, who also host some of the program's weekly field trips. The scholars' first and longest trip was to New Orleans for the Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting.

"This summer's 12 food science scholars are working on such diverse projects as tackling food contaminants, winemaking techniques, food packaging and human nutrition, and they are working with food science faculty on the Ithaca and Geneva, N.Y., campuses.

Elayna Tillman, a rising junior chemistry major at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., is analyzing iron bioavailability in such staples as corn and lentils with Raymond Glahn, a research physiologist with the U.S. Plant, Soil and Nutrition Research Unit at the Robert W. Holley Research Center for Agriculture and Health on the Cornell campus.

"This project on nutritional physiology will combine my interests in chemistry and biology," Tillman said. "Plus, I'm hoping to get a feel for graduate school and take a close look at Cornell."

Says Emma Call, who was a 2010 summer scholar: "After my summer in the Cornell Summer Scholar's Program, I knew I had found my calling. ... Currently, I'm interning at PepsiCo as a result of some networking through program, and in the fall I will be attending North Carolina State to get my Masters in food science."

The food science scholars have a dozen counterparts in the Plant Pathology Summer Research Scholars program at Cornell's New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, now in its third year.

"Most undergraduate science majors don't have hands-on experience in research environments like golf courses, forests and farms, and they may not even be aware of the research possibilities there," said Herb Aldwinckle, professor of plant pathology and program co-organizer. "And we've found that these diverse young people are a big asset to our programs."

Scholars spend eight weeks on their research projects, including tracking fire blight outbreaks with molecular fingerprinting, monitoring molecular evolution in pepper blight and developing new research tools.

"Although I've worked in labs for seven years, I wanted to branch out," said Halli Gutting, a rising senior microbiology major at Michigan State University, who is working with Marc Fuchs, associate professor of plant pathology, this summer. "I'm working with a graduate student to harness grapevine fanleaf virus as a tool for gene silencing -- a method used to shut down a gene to evaluate that gene's function."

In addition to research, field class trips introduce students to the diversity of careers in plant pathology, from research scientist to extension educator, as well as the many settings where plant pathologists work, including the region's vegetable fields, forests, orchards, vineyards and golf courses.

Amanda Garris is a freelance writer in Geneva, N.Y.

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