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Undergrad researchers get a taste of graduate student life

The Plant Genomics @ MSU REU program graduated its most recent intern cohort this summer.

MSU is part of the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, which funds over 100 universities across the country. The program gives undergraduates a taste of graduate student life as they start developing their budding careers, through active research in educational environments. Research sites around the country are tackling a diverse range of topics, like raptors, honey bees in Turkey, neurobiology, and many, many others.

It probably does not come as a surprise that, given MSU’s seasoned history in studying plants, we have an REU site focused on plant sciences that attracts students from across the US.

Teaching plant research

“Plants are essential to human health and nutrition and we utilize them as sources of food, fuel, fiber and pharmaceuticals,” says Dr. Cornelius Barry, Associate Professor in the Department of Horticulture and Director of the Plant Genomics @ MSU REU Program. “And MSU is a leader in plant science research with over 100 faculty engaged in research and teaching that spans the applied to basic science continuum.

“The REU program provides opportunities for students to come to MSU each summer and enrich their undergraduate experience through participating in a mentored research project under the guidance of a faculty mentor.”

Thien by a lake

In 2016, 19 students participated in the program from across the US, including 5 who were mentored by PRL faculty.

Thien Crisanto, an undergrad at Humboldt State University, came to MSU for precisely that reason: “I had a list of about twenty REUs, and MSU’s Plant Genomics REU was my number one choice. The research conducted by the professors were right up my alley; I wanted to do molecular and genetic work on plants. The fact that the REU offered a competitive research package (stipend, food, housing, travel) also made me want to come to MSU. “

Thien was with the Ducat lab, studying ways to create microbial co-existing cultures around cyanobacteria, one of the most productive photosynthetic organisms on the planet. The ultimate goal of that project is to create an alternative fuel source someday.

Olivia Stephens, an undergrad from Spelman College who worked with the Montgomery lab, studied one of the ways plants use light in order to develop and grow. She felt that this exposure to research and mentors helped sharpen her critical and analytical thinking skills.

Olivia at her desk

Developing well-rounded scientists

In addition to doing research, students participated in group meetings and activities, attended professional development workshops, and got the opportunity to discuss graduate school opportunities with current graduate students.

Thien, who is in the process of applying for graduate school, found these interactions helped her explore what she did and did not want for the future. “Connecting with students and faculty gave me much insight on the application process and what it’s like to be in graduate school.”

Olivia adds that, “The program improved my relationships and networks in the scientific community, especially interactions with graduate students. I believe that peer experiences make the most impact and that the social aspect of research is quite often less emphasized.”

And the program is working. Many REU alumni have gone on to successful graduate careers, winning NSF Graduate Research Fellowships or being published in prestigious journals.

With worldwide population growth, increasingly limited natural resources, and the continued problem of climate change, there is a need to explore new food and biofuel solutions. The Plant Genomics @ MSU REU Program is among those projects equipping our upcoming generation of scientists with the knowledge and tools to carry on the torch.

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