Research opportunities open new doors for biorenewable systems student

By Kelly Jedrzejewski
April 04, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Janelle Thompson has found her niche at Penn State with the help of the opportunities she has had through undergraduate research. The junior is majoring in biorenewable systems with a minor in sustainable leadership focusing on environmental justice.

Thompson, of Pittsburgh, knew Penn State was the place for her after attending a "Spend a Fall Day" event at the University. "I loved the energy, and there were so many opportunities in the environmental sciences field," she said. "I knew I could find a specialty here and have great networking connections."

Through a grant from the College of Agricultural Sciences, Thompson began doing research during her sophomore year for Surinder Chopra, professor of maize genetics. A lot of her early work consisted of learning lab procedures, but since then she has been involved in some very innovative projects.

According to Chopra, undergraduate research experience allows students to engage in critical thinking, problem solving and hands-on training to better connect theory and practice. "Janelle is a studious and hard-working student who is passionate to learn and perform research in both the laboratory and the field," he said.

This semester, Thompson's work with Chopra has focused on developing fluorescent tags in a plant pathogenic fungus. This means that after a plant is infected with the fungus, a scientist can track the progress of the fungus through the plant because of its fluorescent qualities. "You should be able to take a section of the plant, place it under the microscope and see exactly where the disease has spread to," Thompson said.

Through the fungus research, she had the opportunity to attend her first research conference last November. The annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students held in Phoenix, Arizona, attracted about 4,000 students from universities across the country and internationally. Thompson presented a poster on her findings and found the conference to be an amazing opportunity for networking.

"Everyone there was incredibly supportive," she said. "People would come up and ask me about my research and give me great feedback. I'm still in contact with a lot of the people I met, and it's been a great way to learn more about the industry."

Thompson also presented her research on March 27 at the 2018 Gamma Sigma Delta Research Expo, an annual event that provides both graduate and undergraduate students with the opportunity to communicate the value of science to a general audience and to those in other areas of professional interest. Students advised by a faculty member in the College of Agricultural Sciences are eligible to participate.

Last summer, Thompson, whose interests include food security, community development and climate change, studied abroad in Tanzania. "I have a hard time describing just how amazing the trip was. I learned so much about a huge variety of topics. I would love to go back."

Thompson participated in a program through the College of Arts and Architecture and the College of Health and Human Development called "Parks and People: Conservation of Nature and Community." A majority of the participating students' time was spent at Udzungwa Mountains National Park, where they studied the challenges of conserving biodiversity in an increasingly populated and developed world. The students conducted field research, talked with the local people and wrote a report on their findings.

Thompson enjoyed working in the lab and conducting research but recently has been considering attending law school. "I've come to appreciate the research, and being part of that has taught me a lot, but I'm also very interested in policies and legislation," she said. "My dream job would combine aspects of community development, science and policy."

Thompson believes that students always should be open to opportunities, even if they are outside of their major. "Just go for it. You never know what's out there unless you take the opportunities that come your way. And use your support system. At a large university such as Penn State, there are tons of opportunities and tons of people along the way who want to help you succeed."

  • Janelle Thompson in Tanzania

    Janelle Thompson, left, with a friend, in Tanzania, Summer 2017. Thompson studied abroad as part of a program through the College of Arts and Architecture and the College of Health and Human Development called "Parks and People: Conservation of Nature and Community."

    IMAGE: Photo provided / Janelle Thompson

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Last Updated April 05, 2018