PSS Spring '11

Sustainable Agriculture


Students and faculty work in partnership with Cornell University's New York State Agricultural Experimentation Station

by Andrew Wickenden '09

Thanks to a longstanding agreement between Hobart and William Smith and Cornell University, the talents of hundreds of burgeoning HWS scientists are shaping the future of agricultural research and its impacts on the local and global communities.

On the northwest side of Geneva, just 60 years after the founding of Hobart College, the staff of the newly established New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) began conducting research. Research, as the New York State Legislature put it, "for the purpose of promoting agriculture in its various branches by scientific investigation and experiment."

"The overriding mission from the beginning has been to conduct research and extension programs that benefit New York food and agriculture industries with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables," says Thomas Burr, Cornell University professor and director of NYSAES. "But the impacts of research at NYSAES today go far beyond New York's borders. They directly touch major national and global issues of food production for a rapidly growing world population, climate change, water resources, food nutrition and safety, bioenergy and climate change."

Established in 1880 and absorbed by Cornell in 1923, NYSAES is part of a statewide system of agricultural research stations associated with a large university in their respective areas. Today, the Station includes more than 300 faculty, staff, and student researchers and more than 900 acres of land planted as test plots, orchards and vineyards.


During the past 30 years, hundreds of HWS students have collaborated with NYSAES scientists on research in NYSAES' four academic departments: entomology, food science and technology, horticultural sciences, and plant pathology. Thanks to the hard work and support of students, faculty, alums, and friends, this partnership between the institutions has developed and deepened since its first stages in 1980, when Professor of Biology Tom Glover sent the first HWS researchers to NYSAES.

"The relationship is mutually beneficial to both institutions," says Glover. "We send them conscientious, strong students to assist them in their research and the Station provides that 'out of classroom' experience, giving students exposure to the vocational side of their scientific interests."

In 2008, a Memorandum of Understanding between HWS and NYSAES formalized the partnership and underscored its goal: to provide unique opportunities for collaborative research between students and faculty. According to the agreement, students may receive course credit or monetary compensation for their research work, both during the summer or academic year. The Colleges' goal is to place 10 to 20 students annually in research positions at the Station.

"The students from HWS become very engaged in the research and have greatly added to our programs and to the vibrancy of our campus," Burr says.

"Students have an opportunity to work with state-of-the-art equipment, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, and a regional, national, and international research community," says Assistant Professor of Biology Patricia Mowery, who will succeed Glover as the liaison between the Colleges and the Station following Glover's retirement this year.

And as Mowery points out, the partnership between HWS and NYSAES not only exposes students to unique equipment, projects and people, "it increases the number of summer research experiences in Geneva available to HWS students." More research opportunities for more students, with more local impacts and global consequences.

In 2009, the Brenda and David Rickey Foundation approved a three year, $45,000 grant to support students in the HWS Summer Science Research Program to undertake research projects at NYSAES. The foundation's support marked the first time the summer program had received funds specifically earmarked for projects performed at the Station.

Since the inaugural class in the summer of 2009, Rickey Scholars have researched everything from the genetics of apples to soil health to the willow as a form of sustainable energy. These—among numerous other NYSAES projects—have allowed HWS students, as Glover says, "to tap into the Station's extensive resources and gain exposure to state-of-theart equipment and additional mentoring opportunities."

"We're thankful for programs like the Rickey Scholars," says HWS President Mark D. Gearan. "The Foundation has made possible the deepening of the important partnership between the Colleges and NYSAES, the furthered growth of our students, and the continuing excellence of the work conducted at both institutions."

With the guidance of HWS faculty members and NYSAES scientists, students tackle issues facing local and global communities alike—from the pumpkin blights affecting New York's farmers to the genetic fingerprinting of crops from across the world—all while expanding their own expertise.

"At NYSAES," Burr says, "it is possible for HWS students to get exposure to very diverse research programs that include fundamental studies on insects, pathogenic microorganisms and plants, as well as exposure to research that answers immediate questions critical to the food and agriculture industries."

"You get experience and confidence and get to work independently on a project," says Amy Norris '11, a 2010 Rickey Scholar who graduated with a degree in biology. "Bumps come along and you have to figure out how to fix them. In the classroom lab, you often work on short-term projects; one of the most rewarding parts of the research at NYSAES was the freedom to make the project my own and see it through from beginning to end."

Another Rickey Scholar, Deepa Oja '11, who researched genetic traits and diversity in apple trees, says the research allowed her to "use what I have learned in my biology classes at HWS and see what full-time research involves."

During the two summers she worked at NYSAES, biochemistry and English doublemajor Kim White '09 discovered the spark that would lead her to pursue a master's degree in enology (the study of wine and wine-making) at Eastern Washington University this fall.

"I have talked with many biology majors about their positive experiences researching at NYSAES," Mowery says. "Their time at the Agricultural Station has helped them understand the nature of scientific research and has helped guide them in future career goals."

However, it's not only HWS students who benefit from the collaboration with NYSAES.

"Over half of the biology department faculty at Hobart and William Smith have or are currently collaborating with NYSAES scientists," says Mowery. "The relationship has created a stronger intellectual community that has resulted in numerous grants and publications."

At this year's Commencement, the Colleges deepened its partnership with NYSAES by conferring honorary degrees on Burr and James Hunter, the past director of NYSAES, for "their leadership, with the many professors and technicians, who have mentored HWS students over the years, and for their perseverance in creating a sustainable model of agriculture."

With multifaceted agricultural and environmental challenges still ahead—including the local needs of New York farmers and growers, the effects of climate change, and the global consumption of energy—Burr says that HWS and NYSAES "have the opportunity to strengthen each other collaboratively through enhanced grant writing and by fostering collaborative projects that include research, extension and teaching. I strongly believe the partnership with HWS will continue to strengthen and be increasingly important to both campuses."

"Without a doubt, the partnership with the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station and Cornell University has been extremely beneficial to our students and faculty" says Gearan. "I look forward to seeing it continue to thrive."


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