The University of Massachusetts Amherst has recognized Stockbridge Plant and Soil Sciences major Julietta Mascitelli with a Rising Researcher Award. Mascitelli will graduate this May, having completed their own research project under the direct mentorship of Stockbridge professor and plant pathologist Elsa Petit.
At Stockbridge, students have the opportunity to participate in award-winning faculty research, and to pursue their own research projects, in close collaboration with the same faculty who teach their classes.
Mascitelli's interests are located at the intersection of sustainable agriculture and plant pathology -- promoting the design of agricultural systems that are ecologically enriching while mitigating disease.
Petit, who hails from France, uses grapes in the American Northeast to study the evolution and ecology of plant-microbe interactions. Petit recently collaborated on an international research team that has unlocked the cause of grapevine trunk diseases that ravage the wine industry.
Petit's ongoing research, utilizing our Agricultural Learning Center, orchards and specialized laboratories, created opportunities for Mascitelli to also develop their own line of research as a student. ""Julietta worked with me on using natural disease resistance in grapes as an alternative to pesticides," says Petit. "They developed an in vitro assay to quantify the level of resistance of different American hybrids to fungal leaf pathogens."
"I've been working on a project that compares the resistance of different varieties of grape to fungal pathogens," Mascitelli explains. "We're looking at how resistance to fungal pathogens is different across the grape varieties we have at the university research vineyard at Cold Springs Orchard."
Under direct mentorship from Petit, Mascitelli says "We scouted for disease on wild grapes and domestic grapes from the Agricultural Learning Center and took samples of infected tissue. We isolated fungi from the samples and aded them to a collection we maintain. We then used cultures from that collection to inoculate leaves from different domestic grape varieties using a leaf plug assay. We incubated those leaves and measured the size of lesions caused by pathogenic fungi over time to quantify the resistance or susceptibility of the variety."
For some students, it's the hands-on approach to learning that fuels their passion. For Mascitelli, "I think what's most exciting is when you've taken a project from the design stage, through the experiments and data collection, and you get to see the results for the first time. Being part of the whole process really adds to the experience. It can be exciting to find something unexpected that might lead you in a whole other direction or start a new project."
Mascitelli is quick to credit Petit for supporting and harnessing their drive to develop independent research:
"Elsa Petit is the principal investigator for my lab, and I really appreciate how open she is to ideas and brainstorming. 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."
Faculty mentor Elsa Petit, who nominated Mascitelli for the Rising Researcher award speaks very highly of her mentee. "Julietta is always thinking ahead in their research. I have been particularly astonished by their ingenuity: coming up with smart designs and using the most readily available tools, such as a smartphone combined with simple image processing software to increase research reproducibility. Julietta constantly worked at research as a craft."
With such a strong recommendation from their faculty advisor, Mascitelli is seeking more hands-on experience before eventually applying for graduate school. Stockbridge offers several graduate program options in addition to its undergraduate degree programs.
Reflecting on the Stockbridge-UMass experience, Mascitelli feels ready to meet the future:
"I feel more confident that I have something I can contribute, and a stronger sense of belonging in the STEM field. I've developed a lot of technical skills from tools, processes, equipment, and software that was new to me. My project reinforced what lab skills I had gained from my classes."
At Stockbridge, students benefit from one-on-one advising with the same faculty advisor who manages their major and teaches many of their classes. The mentor-mentee relationships that develop can become professional networks that support Stockbridge graduates long into their careers.
Learn more about the UMass Rising Researcher Award Program.