The Science of Summer: Undergraduate researchers put their summer break to work

November 11, 2019

By Lauren Matushin

Instead of spending their summers lounging by the lake or binging the latest hit show, undergraduate students from across the country arrive on the Saint Paul campus with a mission. Through grant programs like the USDA sponsored Collaborative Opportunities in Horticulture (COHORT) Program, students are extracting DNA, measuring biodiversity, and harvesting samples, all while gaining hands-on experience in their fields. As they return home for the final years of their undergraduate programs, these students share the highlights of their summer research – the good, the tough, and the eye-opening.

Asha McElroy
LSSURP - Senior, Food and Nutritional Science; North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Greensboro NC

Where did you find your passion for urban agriculture? My mom told me to pursue something I was passionate about. I knew I was passionate about food. I knew I liked helping and educating people. This program opened my eyes to urban agriculture, especially by going to a school where agriculture is a focus.

What research are you working on this summer? I’m looking at how two different factors - high light intensity and phosphorus deficiency - affect anthocyanin production in creeping bentgrass.

Uh…which means? Anthocyanins are basically pigments found in foliage like grass, or in fruits and vegetables. We want to determine the interaction between those two factors, and find if they affect anthocyanin production.

What’s the most exciting thing you’ve done so far? We got to visit local urban farms, community gardens, food hubs. That was something I had never seen in my hometown.

So, what’s the dream job? My ultimate goal is to become a registered dietitian and go back to my hometown to open a community health clinic, offering educational workshops, medical nutrition therapy, and physical activity intervention.

What are you doing when you aren’t in the greenhouse? I just started knitting and crocheting. I’m sticking with the basics right now.

Brittany Stokes
LSSURP – Senior, Biology; Augsburg University, Minneapolis MN

Where did you find your passion for plant science and genetics? I took my genetics course at Augsburg. It could have been the topic or the teacher, who was a fantastic professor, but it was fascinating. How these random molecules produce a being. How small differences determine different species. How small differences change one human from another!

What research are you working on this summer? My main project was to determine pollen viability and to produce diploid potatoes through pollination.

Okay…and that means? Potatoes are tetraploid. They have 4 copies of their genes compared to the 2 copies that corn, dogs, and humans have (diploid). It’s relatively simple to produce new breeds of dog or corn, but since potatoes have twice the amount of genetic information, it’s considerably more difficult. The goal of our lab is to produce diploid potatoes.

What’s the most exciting thing you’ve done so far? Field trips! We’d go to a different farm, field, or co-op and learn how agriculture and business work together. Though the challenge is, plants have seasons and when seasons don’t go well you don’t have plants. 

So, what’s the dream job? The end goal is an MD specializing in pediatrics or gynecology obstetrics, and doing genetics research on deformities and genetic abnormalities that show up early in development.

What do you like to do for fun? I like to cook and bake. I miss my kitchen. We don’t have one right now. Well, there’s a kitchen, but everyone uses it and I prefer to have my own!

Yashira Gutierrez Cardona
LSSURP – Senior, Sustainable Agriculture; Universidad de Puerto Rico

Where did you find your passion for urban agriculture and entrepreneurship?  When I started university, I took a workshop on politics in horticulture and agriculture. It talked about food systems and food security. In Puerto Rico we can grow a lot of things, but we depend a lot on the US. I thought, I have to do this. I have to give food.

What research are you working on this summer? I’m working with arthropods. I measure the biodiversity in urban gardens and I’m measuring levels of beneficial pests.

Arthropods? Insects! We try to see what biodiversity abundance is present and if it is beneficial or a pest for that garden.

What’s the most exciting thing you’ve done so far? I’ve never worked with insects before. And working in the lab! I never had that experience. I have field experience, but not lab.

What are your plans after the program? I want to go to graduate school for ecology and desarrollo ecológico (ecological development). After that, I want to start a farm where researchers can come conduct their research, but I want the farm to be open to the public, so ordinary people can come see what the researchers are doing and learn from them!

Any cool hobbies? I like to play soccer. Defensa y delantera (defense and forward).

Guerldyn Joanem
LSSURP - Senior, International Studies/Pre-Med; Loyola University of Chicago

Where did you find your passion for urban agriculture and entrepreneurship? My parents are from Haiti, so there’s always a variety of food coming in and out of my house, but in high school we went through a rough patch. My parents were able to access food markets and shelves. We still had our home, but those supplementary items supported us and it opened my eyes. If you don’t know a resource exists, you can’t use it.

What research are you working on this summer? I conducted a survey with Twin Cities farmers and gardeners to learn how they keep soil healthy in urban areas, how they dealt with pollution and damaged soil. 

That’s intense! Well, a lot of urban growers don’t have access to the information they might need. Most started outgrowing as a hobby, not to sell product, but now there’s a huge movement to do so with no real information about how to do it.

What’s the most exciting thing you’ve done so far? We visited urban farms and got to see exactly what they were doing. I didn’t realize how many urban farms there were in Minnesota. Huge farms! Plus, we got to taste test produce.

What’s the dream job?  Whatever business I end up working in, it’s going to involve nutrition and giving care to people who don’t have access to it. I want to lessen the gap in access to women's healthcare. That means educational programs that, say, work with a community garden to provide access to information on food deserts, nutrition, and urban gardening. 

So, what do you do for fun? I love to cook and try new foods. And I like rollerblading and photography. Those are the things that keep me sane!

Harywilliam Gonzalez Vidal
LSSURP - Senior, Sustainable Agriculture/Horticulture; Universidad de Puerto Rico Utuado

Where did you find your passion for urban agriculture and entrepreneurship? I began studying social science, but started getting conscious about food problems in the current system, like food security or soverania alimentaria (food sovereignty). Studying social science made me realize that food is the most essential thing for humans. That gave me a purpose to continue my studies. 

What research are you working on this summer? Our project is nitrogen fixing by winter and summer legumes cover crops in high tunnels.

And that means? Legume cover crops have the ability to grab nitrogen from the atmosphere and take it into their biomass, incorporating it into the soil for the system as a whole. It works like an organic fertilizer since nitrogen is good for cash crops, like peppers, tomatoes, and spinach.

What’s the most exciting thing you’ve done so far?  The Cohort field trips were really fun. We visited three or four organic farms, and it was interesting learning about temperate regions’ crops, since I’m from the tropics.

So, what’s the dream job? I want to have my own sustainable farm with polyculture, which means many different crops. I would like it to be an agrotouristic farm, open to the public with a hostel and farm to table food. 

Any cool hobbies? I grew up on the beach. I do a lot of water sports, like freediving, boogie boarding, and surfing, but you have a lot of lakes here, so I did canoeing and paddleboarding.

This was the final year of the Collaborative Opportunities in Horticulture (COHORT) Program, offered under the University’s Life Sciences Summer Undergraduate Research Program (LSSURP). Established in 2016, the COHORT Program offered unique summer research opportunities to students from underrepresented communities, covering topics from agroecology to urban agriculture, while helping students build a vision of their future careers. 

A major part of the program was mentoring from small business owners and exposure to entrepreneurial opportunities in agriculture through a partnership with the Carlson School of Management, where students participated in workshops and visited local businesses. “The MBA students at Carlson led workshops on entrepreneurship and business risk,” said Professor Neil Anderson, PI on the COHORT’s USDA-AFRI grant, “but had little experience with horticulture, so this partnership inspired them to explore a new world, too. And that’s what this whole grant was about: taking the fear and intimidation out of being at a Big Ten school, showing the diversity of research going on, and creating a cohort where students could form real bonds.”

Central to the COHORT was the cohort itself, the creation of a peer group for the students to experience the program alongside, to share troubles and triumphs. “The students made a connection to one another,” said Professor Mary Rogers, co-PI on the program’s grant, “and a lot of them are still friends! It’s important to have that peer group because it offers a different level of support than faculty mentors could provide.” That support is key to the COHORT’s goal: dispelling the mystery around graduate research and making graduate school more approachable. And it’s paying off. Professor Rogers has a new graduate student in her lab this year - Naomy Candelaria, a former COHORT student.