Plant pathology students reap benefits of research opportunities

Kelly Jedrzejewski
February 14, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Helping undergraduate students understand scientific knowledge through participation in research is a top priority for faculty in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"Any STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) student must understand how scientific knowledge is created. Even if you don't go into research, you need to know how this knowledge is created if you want to use it effectively to make decisions," said Carolee Bull, professor and department head.

"For any student who wants a career in research, understanding where the knowledge comes from is the building block. It gives students the fundamentals from which they can go on to do graduate work or have other careers in the future."

Penn State is a tier-one research university, meaning it offers significant resources for students interested in research, said Bull. "The college has wonderful opportunities for students to write grants to get their own work funded, and the faculty has opportunities for the students. If students start early in their college careers and identify faculty members they would like to work with, the students' own energy is really the only thing that can limit them."

Students within the department, such as senior Melissa Mercado and junior Drew May, are well aware — and very thankful — for these opportunities. Both students share a love of plants and the science behind them, but the two have followed different paths to Penn State and their research projects.

Mercado, of Hayward, California, is majoring in biology with a minor in plant pathology. Not only is she a first-generation college student, she also is an adult learner and credits an interest in nature photography for setting her on the track of biology and plant pathology — which, in turn, led her to Penn State.

May, a Gettysburg native, is a biological engineering major with minors in plant pathology, environmental engineering, and watershed and water resource management. Penn State is a family tradition for May, going all the way back to his grandparents who worked in Penn State Extension.

Both acknowledge that because of their time spent working in the lab, they are ahead of the curve when it comes to real-life work experience. "It's one thing to read it and talk about it in class — it's another to do it entirely yourself," Mercado said.

For May, his experience in research labs at Penn State has done a lot to help him grasp basic skills necessary for lab work.

"In class, they may tell you how to run a polymerase chain reaction, but there's no comparison to being in the lab and actually completing the task," said May, whose current research focuses on bacterial resistance to toxins produced by other bacteria. "It's the best way to learn basic lab tasks."

Mercado has worked with polymerase chain reactions, DNA extraction and bacterial pathogenicity on lettuce and mushroom hosts. Her most recent work involves bacterial resistance to a fungal pathogen on Agaricus mushroom.

Mercado said having the chance to network with faculty members and graduate students has greatly helped her during her time at the University. "Getting into labs to do research is a huge benefit of being at Penn State. It's a great way to learn, ask questions and gain knowledge."

May explained that work in the lab is always an exercise in patience, and while a successful outcome is celebrated, sometimes the failures are the most important part of research. "I've been told you have to fail to succeed in science," Mercado said. "But it is something you have to expect. Things can go wrong a lot more times than they will go right. It's always interesting when something new happens after a lot of trial and error."

You have to know things probably will not work out the first time, May added. "I don't understand experiments really well until I've had to complete them a few times. It makes you go back and really look at all of the variables."

Undergraduate research is not a requirement for either student's major, but they both agree it is a valuable way to make connections — and it looks very good on a resume, especially if you are interested in graduate work.

"One of the main reasons I transferred to Penn State from my university in California was the amazing research opportunities for undergrads," Mercado explained. "I'm interested in going to grad school and am going through the application process now."

Students can get into research through a number of different channels. May has worked with several professors in the department since his freshman year. Most recently, he has been working with Kevin Hockett, assistant professor of microbial ecology. May took a class with Hockett last fall and enjoyed working with the professor so much that he decided to reach out to see if there were any research positions available.

Mercado began working with John Pecchia, an assistant professor, on a fungal pathogen affecting Agaricus mushrooms and had the opportunity to prepare a grant for the project. She will be continuing her work this spring.

May and Mercado are founding members of the Blooms and Shrooms Club at Penn State, with May serving as the current president.

"A great thing about the club is that we love to help our members get involved in research, no matter how long they've been at Penn State," Mercado said. "It's such a tight-knit department that we're able to ask around and help students find a good position."

Looking to the future, May hopes to operate his own hydroponic greenhouse one day. Hydroponics is growing plants with little to no soil, and he explained that the business is lucrative as well as challenging.

After graduate school, Mercado would like to find a job that would allow her to travel and conduct research. She also hopes to work in an agricultural seed company to study genetically modified crops. "There are so many options within this academic program, there are limitless job possibilities," she said.

Both Mercado and May encourage students not to be afraid to ask questions or get involved. "If you enjoy a class with a certain professor, don't be afraid to talk with him or her about research. This department is great about helping students find their niche. If you take the first step, the professors are very willing to help you go far," said May.

Bull and the rest of the faculty echo these sentiments. "We value the students in our department, and we're dedicated to making sure they are trained in a practical and hands-on way," she said.

  • Plant path

    Melissa Mercado and Drew May are among the undergraduate students participating in research projects in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology.

    IMAGE: Kelly Jedrzejewski

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Last Updated February 14, 2018