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A "Fruitful" Summer Research Experience

Posted on Thursday, July 03, 2014

With the beauty of Seneca Lake often considered the focal point of the Colleges' landscape, it's sometimes easy to forget that the Colleges are also located in one of the agricultural capitals of the world. For more than 30 years, student researchers have taken advantage of the Colleges' partnership with the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) to conduct summer research on issues that directly impact the region's rich agricultural assets.

The NYSAES is a Cornell University facility located just two miles from campus that gives students the opportunity to work in world-renowned facilities alongside some of the top professors and researchers in the field.

"The students gain an amazing experience," says Associate Professor of Biology Patricia Mowery, who is the liaison between the NYSAES and HWS. "The HWS students develop valuable technical skills, and more importantly a true understanding of how scientific research is conducted."

This summer, Kaitley Wozer '15, Katrin Ayer '16, and Fatima Saravia '16 are conducting research with support from Rickey Summer Research Scholarship. Since 2009, the Rickey Foundation has funded the research of three HWS students at the NYSAES. Brenda and David Rickey, a native of Geneva, established the Brenda and David Rickey Foundation as one of several means of supporting the Geneva community.

Mowery says that without support from the foundation, the "formative" research experiences for students would be lost. Wozer adds, "The opportunities provided by the grant have allowed me to solidify my future schooling and career goals and to gain experience that most undergraduates could hardly dream of."

The Rickey Fund recipients this year have been tasked with researching ways to improve the quality and health of some of the region's most valuable crops - grapes and apples.

Though Wozer and Saravia are both conducting research on grapes, their research exemplifies the wide spectrum of topics covered at the Ag Station. Wozer is working in the virology lab alongside Associate Professor Marc Fuchs and a Ph.D student to study the Grapeline Fanleaf Virus (GFLV). Wozer says the virus can decrease grape yields by up to 80 percent and infects grapes in all temperate regions. Her research involves using molecular and microbial lab techniques to determine if the exact region of GFLV's genome causes symptoms in the affected plants.

"Working at the Ag Station has benefits in countless forms," says Wozer, who has participated in summer research since her first-year. "Having a lot of knowledgeable people around me allows me to observe each person's different approaches to various techniques, which in turn allows me to pick and choose and develop my own personal style of handling research in the lab."

Focusing more closely on the world-class wine produced in the Finger Lakes, Saravia is working in the enology department in collaboration with the VitisGen project, a multi-institution research project funded by the USDA-NIFA Specialty Initiative for the development of new grape varieties. At the Ag Station, Saravia is looking at wine characteristics such as color and acid balance, to pick out the most desirable genes. She says her contribution to the project involves the color characteristic known as "blueness," which is an unwanted quality in wine. Her goal is to take the phenotype that causes "blueness" out of the grape population.

Saravia says her research has provided her with a "unique experience" that has not only opened up a "new and different" branch of research for her, but also shown her what it takes to work in the research field. "It's been a learning experience every step of the way for which I am very grateful for," Saravia says.

Finger Lakes wine may be the region's most renowned agricultural product, but the apples harvested in the area are of the same world-class caliber. Hoping to prevent disease from destroying valuable crops, Ayer's research this summer focuses on apple scab and pesticide resistance.

Apple scab is the most economically destructive disease of apples in the world; apples in this region usually cannot be commercially grown without some type of method to control the disease. In an effort to combat the disease, Ayer is comparing the effects of different control and fungicide treatments on a selection of apple scab lesions collected from different tree varieties.

Also conducting research on apples this summer is Kevin Moore '15, who was a Rickey Fund recipient last summer and returned to the Ag Station again this summer as the first recipient of the Thomas J. Glover Endowed Summer Science Research Fund in the Natural Sciences. With the help from the fund, he is working in the horticulture department to research apple genetics. Specifically, Moore says he is working on "micro propagation," which involves taking a piece of plant material off the apples, and then growing it in tissue culture to eventually produce more copies of the same plant.

"I enjoyed working in the entomology department so much last summer that I wanted to have another opportunity to work at the Ag Station before I graduated," Moore says. "Having the ability to broaden my horizons and learn a lot more about how biology is actually carried out in the real world has meant a lot and it's a great opportunity."

While the end-goal of the research being conducted by the Rickey Scholars, and all of the research students working at the Ag Station, may be to contribute advantageous findings to the agricultural community in the region, the eight-week research stint is also proving to be an invaluable learning experience for all of the scholars. From improved laboratory techniques and research methods to invaluable connections with distinguished researchers, Mowery believes that the students will undoubtedly leave the experience with a greater appreciation of how science is conducted, "including its limitations and possibilities."

"It has given me an incredible amount of exposure not only to laboratory research techniques and problem solving strategies, but it also has given me connections to those who are deep within the research field," says Wozer. "The Ag Station, being a major institution in extension work for growers, has impressive resources, which provides me with the opportunity to work with advanced equipment that I would have otherwise only read about in scientific journals."

 


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