CAFE Inaugurates Undergraduate Summer Scholars Program

Paul Travers under the hood.
Paul Travers under the hood.
Kallin Lang holds a wood thrush.
Kallin Lang holds a wood thrush.

The Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (CAFE) is wrapping up its first Undergraduate Summer Scholars Program, which provided paid summer employment for UMass Amherst undergraduate students in the labs and offices of university faculty and in communities where professional extension educators are engaged with citizens. 

The program provides substantive professional or academic training and also enhances the goals of research and extension initiatives associated with CAFE. Projects range from urban stream quality to agronomy genomics to wildlife sustainability.

Entrance into the program was competitive, with 54 faculty and staff vying for a limited number of internships. A selection committee made up of department heads and others selected 27 projects and 35 students for funding.

Seven projects are being conducted by students working with extension faculty and professionals on educational outreach. The remaining projects involve a research component conducted under the supervision of academic and extension faculty.

Significant funding in support of the students projects was received fromthe Massachusetts Statewide Grange, the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture CAFE’s Massachusetts Agricultural Experiment Station.

Paul Travers, a rising senior headed for a medical career, is spending the summer immersed in the unique Plant Cell Culture Library (PCCL), a collection of 2,500 plant stem cells that is the world’s largest library by diversity, representing both common and rare species. Under the direction of Elizabeth Vierling, Distinguished Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, Travers is working on a project entitled “Discovery of Bioactive Natural Products and their Biosynthetic Pathways from Diverse Plant Species in Culture.”

Travers is involved in the discovery of new antimicrobials, with a focus on screening for compounds against Fusarium oxysporum, a plant pathogen. The project exposes plant cell cultures to different stressors to induce a response: a release of chemicals. Then he collects the plant and its released chemicals and determines whether it has anti-viral, anti-bacterial or anti-fungal properties. He then uses spectrometry to analyze the released chemicals.

Kallin Lang, a rising senior and biology major, is studying “The Role of Novel Food Webs in Regulating Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Urban-Suburban Environments in New England.”  Focusing on wood thrushes, Lang has been working under the direction of professor Paige Warren in environmental conservation. Wood thrushes across the Northeast have declined seriously in recent decades, so laboratories like Warren’s are paying close attention to causes of decline facing these migratory birds.

Lang tracked the reclusive bird all summer and discovered that relatively few wood thrush chicks reached adulthood this year. This is caused by an increase in predators that eat both eggs and young chicks. She set up video cameras to monitor “provisioning rates” (how often parents feed the young).

An overarching goal of the Undergraduate Summer Scholars Program is to help participating students gain insight into ways that academic research and the resulting scholarship can be integrated with educational programs, resources, tools or technologies that meet the needs of citizens, communities, organizations, businesses, government agencies or policy-makers. 

The summer experience will culminate when the participants gather for a poster session Sept. 14 in the Campus Center.