The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Summer Scholars

UMass students test their research chops on farms, food and fields
  • UMass student lexander Bienvenue holds a bunch of grapes at Cold Spring Orchard.

“I was excited and proud about doing something that could contribute to maintaining our ecosystem,”

- Eugene Amponsah ’19.

Thirty-eight undergraduate students this summer worked in labs, farms, orchards, and tree-lined streets in Springfield as part of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment’s (CAFE) Summer Scholars Program. They researched saving bees from a parasite, the health of urban trees, rapid detection of E. coli in drinking water, the viability of American grape species, reducing the use of pesticides, and many other critical areas of study.

n its second year, the Summer Scholars Program pairs a faculty member or extension educator with an undergraduate student who earns $4,000 over the summer. “The faculty member or extension educator gets extra assistance and the student gets hands-on experience with a research or public education project and a unique and distinguishing element to put on their resume,” says William Miller, CAFE assistant director.

Take Eugene Amponsah ’19, a biology major from East Hartford, Connecticut, who worked with biology professor Lynn Adler and discovered how long it takes to cure bumble bees infected with the parasite Crithidia using sunflower pollen. “I was excited and proud about doing something that could contribute to maintaining our ecosystem,” says Amponsah. Adler says the summer program is an ideal way to introduce students to scientific research with many benefits. “I've copublished many papers with undergraduates, which is great for both our lab productivity and for launching a student’s scientific career,” she says.

Insects and disease pests occupied Annalisa Flynn ’20, a sustainable food and farming student from Newton, Massachusetts, as she crisscrossed eastern Massachusetts farm country scouting for organisms that destroy vegetables. “I visited six farms weekly and spent time walking through fields, counting pests to determine the threshold,” says Flynn. She reported her findings to the farmer, as well as the weekly “Vegetable Notes,”a newsletter distributed to 2,500 people, that supports public education. “Annalisa is now a walking encyclopedia of vegetable-related pest knowledge, and she is an incredible resource to any farming endeavor,” says Katie Campbell-Nelson, extension educator.

Brian Kane, Massachusetts Arborists Association professor of commercial arboriculture in the Department of Environmental Conservation, notes that the Summer Scholars Program provides valuable funding for student research. “A motivated undergraduate can be very helpful in collecting data,” he says. Justin Esiason ’18, an environmental science and jazz studies major from Warren, Massachusetts, was dispatched to Amherst as Kane’s assistant. Esiason took measurements of a tree’s diameter, length, woody and leafy mass, height of limbs, gravity of wood, and area of leaves. He says he learned the importance of consistent data collection and honest, thorough data analysis.

Adam Salhaney ’19, a food science and technology major from Holliston, Massachusetts, spent his summer working in the Chenoweth Lab of food scientist Lili He. Salhaney was tasked with using color-changing gold nanoparticles to detect E. coli in drinking water. “The most challenging part of the project was the realization that real science takes time, patience, and a lot of troubleshooting. However, this realization also led to the most enjoyable part of the project, which was the incredible satisfaction when everything finally went right.” Faculty member Lili He says Salhaney learned hands-on bench skills, sharpened his oral and poster presentation skills, and mentored high school students, who were also part of the lab.

Like Salhaney, Alexander Bienvenue ’18, from Westfield, Massachusetts, enrolled in the Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration, was also engaged in his first-ever hands-on scientific research into the viability of non-European grapes, which included a significant public education component. “The most challenging part was shoot thinning. The grapevines are very vigorous plants with dense canopies, so it’s easy to get lost in them and lose track of how many shoots per foot you have already thinned,” he explained. Elsa Petit, faculty member in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture studying the American grape species, says, “It is great to work with a student who asks us questions about the project with an outside perspective. Students and professors both benefit.”

The Summer Scholars Program concluded September 13 with a poster session in which students summarized their research. The program was supported with gifts from the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture and Massachusetts State Grange, which enabled a higher number of student participants.