Shaping young scientists, one summer at a time
Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center
By Amanda Voye
When Jillian Foerster started her freshman year at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, she had no idea she would end up in Wisconsin studying biofuels. What she did know was that as a cell and molecular biology major, she had several options for research exploration.
“You could go make wine. You could go into bioinformatics. You could do all these different things,” she says. “One of the things that interested me the most was renewable fuels. So I just sat at the computer and Googled bioenergy internships.”
What came up was the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program offered by the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC). She applied right away.
Foerster in summer 2008 with Ian Prust (left) and Shawn Kaeppler (right)
The REU program held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison focuses on providing a cutting-edge research experience to undergraduate students interested in renewable energy. Each summer, students participate in hands-on, contemporary bioenergy research with GLBRC scientists in the field. They explore a wide range of topics including sustainability, biofuel production and considerations that are driving interest in new bioenergy technologies.
In summer 2008, the first year the bioenergy REU was offered, Foerster headed to Madison for three months full of science, discussion, research and new friendships.
“The program itself was really awesome,” Foerster says, describing pizza lunch discussions with other REU students, working with plants in GLBRC researcher Shawn Kaeppler’s lab and summer volleyball with new friends.
While Foerster appreciated small class sizes and good relationships with her professors at the small liberal arts college she attended in Michigan, she recommends the REU program to any student who is not at a big research institution.
“You don’t understand research. You don’t understand the scale of research,” she says. “One of the biggest things I learned at the REU program is that scale of research and how it works.”
In addition to providing a great research experience, the REU program also emphasizes the ability to think critically. As Foerster researched specific science like root lodging and root architecture, she also participated in discussions with other students about broader big-picture science topics.
“I always liked those discussions, and I try to keep doing them, because that’s one of my favorite parts of grad school,” she says. “Just being able to sit around and talk about big-picture science.”
During the summer, Dr. Kaeppler asked her about future plans and the possibility of graduate school. At the time, Foerster had not thought about it at all. But, after completing the REU program in the fall she decided that she could not pass up the opportunity to continue her education.
After falling in love with Madison over the summer, “I decided I want to go back to Madison and I want to work with plants,” she says. “The city cares so much about where their food comes from, restaurants buying from local farmers, people growing their own gardens. The awareness of food is great.”
In June 2009, Foerster began her graduate career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying plant breeding and plant genetics while again working on research with Dr. Kaeppler, who is now her mentor and advisor.
“I think it’s really important when you go to grad school to not only pick a place that has great research and a great research project, but also with an advisor you are going to be able to get along with,” Foerster says. “I think I enjoy what I do most right now because I have such a great relationship with my advisor.”
In the next two years Foerster plans on finishing her graduate program and finding a job, but she will never forget her experience with REU.
“I can say with confidence, that I would not be in grad school if I had not gone to this program,” she says.
The REU program is kicking off its fourth summer this June and will continue to give more students the opportunity and tools to excel in the bioenergy industry. To learn more about educational opportunities offered by GLBRC, visit GLBRC.org/Education/Programs.
Submitted by Anonymous on Tue, 2011-05-31 14:33