Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are an incredibly controversial topic at the moment. Private corporations develop these tailored genomes in order to increase commercial crop productivity while profiting themselves. Whether your concern is what sorts of genetic changes in our crops could go unnoticed or simply one of the ethical issues in patenting a new variety, there is a negative stigma revolving around the subject. Commercial crop improvement via genetic modification is not limited to private industry. In working with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS) over the summer, I contributed to observations and experimentation that lead to more resilient crops.
I held the position of a biological aide at a USDA APHIS research facility whose focus was plant-based air quality research. The primary mission of this program is to protect the United States agriculture and natural resources from the entry, establishment, and spread of economically and environmentally significant pests. Ongoing experiments at our site focused on selective breeding of certain plant species for ozone resistance, where plants were grown in controlled chambers of varying concentrations of ozone treatment. My time spent aiding this research was split into two areas of study. At the field site, I did data processing as well as setup and maintenance of the experiments and the site as a whole, where in the laboratory I also focused on the roots of the plants grown in the experiments.
My duties in the field mostly consisted of maintenance of the experiment site, ensuring that all of the necessary experimental controls were in place and functioning as intended. This included daily monitoring of the equipment used to regulate the distribution of ozone, as well as the equipment used for basic plant care (i.e. watering, fertilization, weed control). As most of these studies were relatively large scale, with some studies requiring the harvest of several thousand plants, the most strenuous and time-consuming of my duties came from the setup of the experiments and the plant harvests and processing.
As the summer progressed, my responsibilities grew. A coworker and I eventually became responsible for gathering data on our own that would be used in the laboratory. We used sophisticated camera equipment to take underground root photographs in order to document root growth behavior based on the treatments the plants were receiving.
Some of the most interesting field work came when the field engineer required help to solve problems with experimentation, allowing us to use our problem-solving abilities and giving us more room for input. In setting up the field experiments, we became quite familiar with the equipment used. For example, I pointed out a flaw in one of the experiment controls that had gone unnoticed. Data received related to that control had been giving us issues and my fortunate observation helped to return that data to its expected levels.
Towards the end of the summer I began to spend more and more time in the lab, doing mostly data processing but learning new skills all the while. Plant roots were collected from the field experiments, where I placed them in a fixative mixed in the lab and stored them to be processed. I had been told stories of several thousand-plant studies that took nearly a year to process. After gaining experience in processing the data I found myself facing larger and larger data samples. Along with samples sizes, my responsibilities in data processing grew as well. As weeks passed I progressed from scanning and editing images to analyzing said images and displaying the collected relevant data in an excel spreadsheet. Through various projects within the lab I was able to gain valuable experience in several useful software programs. Each day was a learning opportunity. Working with scientists in trying to solve problems and discussing current methodology in the field made each day in the lab something to look forward to.
At first I was concerned that this internship would not apply directly to my field of study. Once I began learning new skills and about the importance of what the USDA is doing at this site I accepted the tangential relationship that the internship had with my major and realized that I thoroughly enjoyed what I was learning and doing. I was beyond excited to know that every day I was working I was contributing to the advancement of our understanding of plant genetics and resilience of the commercial crops on which we so heavily rely.
Through this internship I’ve learned that I truly enjoy conducting research. A career in laboratory management or possibly a secondary degree with a research focus are goals I’ve developed since this realization. Through my experience I have met some amazing people and received the opportunity to work with world-renowned scientists. I have gained a greater appreciation for the amount of effort put into the ongoing studies that are being conducted by corporations and government entities alike.
This internship has helped me realize my goal in contributing as much as I can to foster our understanding of the world we live in. The work had its ups and downs, but I am absolutely ecstatic about the opportunity I was given with the USDA and hope to have the option to continue my career with them.