BTI Intern Picks Up Awards on His Way to Berkeley

by | May 9, 2016

Dhruv Patel and Tom Jacobs

Dhruv Patel and his current mentor, postdoctoral research Tom Jacobs

Dhruv Patel, a Cornell senior and intern in the Martin laboratory, has worked incredibly hard to become a National Science Foundation Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley this fall, but he can thank a little junior high school peer pressure for setting him on the path to a career in plant science.

While sitting at lunch with friends, Patel couldn’t decide which elective to choose so he followed friends to the Future Farmers of America class. They ran a greenhouse and grew tomatoes and other produce, which they sold on campus. He got great satisfaction from harvesting the results of his efforts and fell in love with plants.

“I definitely want to continue working with plants,” said Patel. “There’s really a lot of potential in plant production. The work that you can contribute in any crop system can affect so many lives downstream, and that gives me the motivation to ask these questions that need to be asked.”

During his more than three years of conducting research in the Martin laboratory at BTI, Patel, a first-generation college student, has had the opportunity to ask a lot of questions about plants. He hopes to keep asking vital questions about plant biology as a Ph.D. student and eventually as a professor.

Even before coming to Cornell University, Patel knew that he wanted to get involved in research. After his first semester, he emailed a few campus professors but found that he was drawn to Greg Martin’s research into fundamental concepts about disease resistance with real-world implications. He started out potting and pruning plants but soon began learning additional lab techniques and eventually received his own project. His long tenure in the lab means that he has worked with various postdocs and graduate students.

“Everyone knows Dhruv,” said his current mentor, postdoctoral scientist Tom Jacobs. “He’s great—easy-going, but also very hardworking.” Jacobs describes him as an independent and curious researcher who likes to try things out. Currently, Patel is working with Jacobs to use the gene editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 to tease apart the functions of a family of tomato receptors that detect bacterial proteins.

In recognition of his research contributions and leadership activities, Professor Greg Martin nominated Patel for the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence, which he received earlier this month. The award is given to students who not only have outstanding academic achievement but who also participate in athletics, the performing arts, career development or leadership activities. In addition to his research at BTI, Patel leads a traditional Indian dance troupe, serves as a resident advisor for 90 undergraduates and writes for a The Triple Helix Journal, a student-run publication that promotes discussion of scientific issues.

“From the beginning, Dhruv was very quick to learn new techniques and was excited and enthusiastic to understand more about the conceptual aspects of our work,” Martin said. “He also has well-developed interpersonal skills and has been active in extracurricular activities making him a great candidate for the SUNY Chancellor’s Award.”

Patel also learned recently that he had been selected for a prestigious and highly competitive National Science Foundation Fellowship. He based his proposal on an extension of research he did at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center during his summer internship there in 2015. He worked with Dmitri Nusinow and He Huang on light signaling and the circadian clock in plants, trying to understand how phytochromes and components of the clock regulate plant growth. The NSF award will support him through the first three years of his doctorate, in addition to another two years of support through his recently awarded Berkeley Fellowship.

While Patel’s future in plant science is promising, his path to graduate school hasn’t always been smooth. As a first-generation college student and the child of immigrants, Patel has had to figure out a lot of the steps along the way, like taking the ACT and SAT, without input from his parents.

“I know my parents really wanted me to pursue higher education because it’s something they weren’t able to do,” he said. Patel attributes his success to the value of education that his parents instilled in him.

Patel is a member of the McNair Scholars Program, which works with first-generation and minority low-income students who want to complete a Ph.D. after graduation. The program helps to prepare qualified students for graduate school and requires that students complete and present a research project.

“There’s been a lot of support from different professors and graduate students who have shown me the ins and outs of science,” he said.

After graduation, Patel will head west to return to his California roots and start graduate school. But first, he will take a much-deserved summer vacation.

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