Research to Promote Grape Resilience
Julietta Mascitelli ’23
What drew you to this field of study?
Coming to UMass Amherst, I knew I wanted to work with plants; they’re so fascinating and critical for our lives and well-being. I’ve always been curious about nature and attracted to the idea of working outdoors in some way. I’m also really interested in sustainable agriculture.
How do you conduct your research?
I am working on a research project that compares the resistance of different varieties of grapes to fungal pathogens. We scouted for disease on wild grapes and also domestic grapes from the Agricultural Learning Center, and took samples of infected tissue. We isolated fungi from the samples and added them to a collection we maintain in the lab. We then used fungal cultures from that collection to inoculate leaves from different domestic grape varieties. We incubated those leaves and measured the size of lesions caused by the fungi over time to quantify the resistance or susceptibility of the variety.
What do you see as the impact—or potential impact—of your work?
Varieties of grapes have been bred over time to have different qualities and traits. We are looking at how resistance to fungal pathogens differs across the grape varieties we have at the university research vineyard in Cold Spring Orchard (an orchard, research and education facility owned by UMass Amherst in Belchertown). We want to know the diversity of fungal pathogens that exist in the wild; how widespread and pathogenic they are; and how resistant or susceptible domestic grape varieties are to that disease so we can predict and prepare for outbreaks. If we know which grape varieties are more resistant to certain fungi, we can advise growers which varieties to use if they are having problems.
How does your faculty mentor support your research?
Elsa Petit is the principal investigator for my lab. I really appreciate how open she is to hearing my ideas and brainstorming with me. She puts a lot of trust in me, which has really helped my confidence in the lab. She’s always offering ways I can get more involved with different projects if I’m interested and have time. Doing research has increased my confidence that I have something to contribute, and has given me a stronger sense of belonging, in a STEM field.
What do you find most exciting about conducting research?
I find it very exciting to take a project from the design stage through the experiments and data collection, and finally, to see the results for the first time. Being a part of the whole process really adds to the experience. It can be exciting to find something unexpected that might take you in a whole other direction or even lead to a new project.
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of having designed parts of how we ran the experiments, including finding and incorporating a software into our data collection process that really improved how we measured lesions. I’m also proud of pushing myself outside of my comfort zone by doing poster presentations at the William Lee Science Impact Program (LeeSIP) Poster Symposium at UMass and at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Inclusive Excellence Summer Symposium at Vassar College.
How has your research enhanced your overall educational experience at UMass?
Doing research has increased my confidence that I have something to contribute, and has given me a stronger sense of belonging, in a STEM field. I’ve developed a lot of technical skills using new tools, processes, equipment, and software. The project also reinforced the lab skills I had gained from my classes, and drew heavily on knowledge from my plant pathology courses. Because of the scouting trips I took to search for wild grapes, I spot them everywhere I go now, and I’ve learned to identify different species, diseases, and look-alikes. Visiting the research vineyard to collect samples, data, and manage the vines also broadened my education into field work for the first time. I feel like I have actual applied experience now, and it’s a joy. Overall, this project has given me a range of skills that have and continue to lead me in wonderful directions.
What are your plans for the future?
I would like to take at least a year after graduation to work and get more hands-on experience before applying for graduate school. I really enjoy the balance between lab and field work involved in agricultural research, and I would like to be more involved with educational outreach.
Someday, I would like to have a farm and greenhouse that act as community spaces for workshops and events.
Why would you recommend UMass to a friend?
UMass has a multitude of ways to get involved and to reinforce your learning outside of the classroom, such as practicums, undergraduate research, and summer programs.