Student Spotlight: Abigail Diering’s journey from cooking veggies to mapping grape genes

June 25, 2018

By Janelle Hueners

Abigail Diering, a Plant Science and Chemistry major from Denver, Colorado, speaks enthusiastically about her experience working in two Horticultural Science research laboratories. Her interest in plant research can be traced back to one of her first classes at the University of Minnesota: Plant Propagation, Horticultural Science’s introductory course covering the fundamentals of plant biology and a wide variety of growing techniques. This class sparked her interest in the biochemistry of plants and led her to apply for a job in Professor Adrian Hegeman’s laboratory.

Up until that point, Diering's primary interaction with plants was as a food source. She was in culinary school and decided she needed a change. “I wanted to see what was happening with the plants I was putting in my food.”

With that in mind, Diering began her journey into the world of horticultural science. The chemistry she learned in her first plant propagation class spawned a particular fascination for viticulture, the study of grapes. Working with Assistant Professor Matthew Clark, Horticultural Science’s resident grape expert, was a natural next step. Diering’s role: to further develop research on a grape population that has been specifically bred to map a number of important genetic traits, ranging from disease resistance to color variation. Clark and Diering are hopeful that research on this population may lead to a new variety of wine grape that combines the beloved flavor of a European variety and the hardiness of a North American grape.

"Keep your eyes peeled. One of these grapes is going to be famous someday" she added.

Diering looks forward to furthering her research on the genetic traits of grapes this summer. She will also be working with Professor Jim Luby on the development and breeding of kiwi berries, which taste like kiwis but are roughly the size of table grapes and can easily be eaten whole.

Her advice to other students? Be bold. “Just do it. Go ask questions. Apply for UROP [Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program], and talk to graduate students. Everybody’s a person. They’re not as scary as they seem. Also, try the Honeycrisp apple.”

Diering has found a home in the Department of Horticultural Science at the University of Minnesota. She has identified a passionate group of people, willing to help and support one another. And, she has put herself at the forefront of some groundbreaking research in a field that is ripe for new discoveries.

“There’s no saying you can’t do something here,” she adds.