The World at her Fingertips: A Spotlight of Autumn Hurd
Walking into a research lab for the first time can feel foreign, even for the most confident students. Plus, it can take some time for undergraduates to recognize the potential impact of their research contributions. This was the case for Autumn Hurd, who is participating in the Boyce Thompson Institute’s Plant Genome Research Program (PGRP) Internship this summer.
Autumn is a self-described “classic South Dakota child.” She lives on a farm, has never been to ‘the big city,’ graduated high school in a class of sixteen students, and lives in a town of five hundred people.
Staying true to her midwest roots, she studies Biology at Doane University, a small school in Nebraska, right across the border from her home in Bridgewater, South Dakota.
Despite the change of scenery heading east, Autumn has thrived this summer at Cornell. The PGRP internship is opening her eyes to experiences she’s never had before (she made it to New York City for a weekend!) and giving her a whole new perspective on research.
“My idea of research was not as complete as it is now having been a PGRP intern,” said Autumn. “When I came to the program, I didn’t realize we would be working on stuff that is actually relevant here and now, because I thought about research as solving one small problem with no relevance to the bigger picture.”
A couple of semester-long projects were the only research Autumn had ever done before this summer, and none of her work was meant to be continued. In order to get a more meaningful research experience, Autumn wanted to join a longer-term project with real-life applications that could help people. This summer, she found just that.
Autumn’s internship is with the Bogdanove Lab in the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS) at Cornell University. Her lab group is taking on both local and global challenges, with goals of halting the outbreak of black rot in NYS cabbages and saving East Africa’s banana populations from a devastating bacteria. Both of these projects were a perfect fit for Autumn, who is thankful for the new experience to see her work make an impact across the globe.
Like all PGRP interns, Autumn has her own independent summer project within her lab. She is adding to the research that will hopefully create a disease-resistant banana for East Africa in the coming years. A disease called Xanthomonas vasicola pv. musacearum is destroying whole fields and leaving farmers with no crop to sell or to sustain their families. Autumn is working specifically to decipher the clues related to host specificity. Why does this disease seem to only infect bananas? If we know why, could we create a disease-resistant banana?
Autumn is passionate about her project since it represents all the aspects of research that she hadn’t known existed.
“When I found out I was going to get to learn about bananas and the issues causing starvation and economic troubles in East Africa for my independent project, I was super surprised!” said Autumn. “It was really cool to find out that we were working on things that can actually help people’s lives.”
She is also proud of the local impact of her lab’s work. “The cabbage black rot issue is an issue now. New York is having some major problems, and they are the number one fresh cabbage producer in the country, so it’s a big deal.”
Many PGRP interns use the program to test the lab research waters and decide if they want to continue with it at their own institutions or in graduate school. “I used this summer to try out research and see if it was for me,” said Autumn. “I am really enjoying it, and I hope to join a research lab when I get back to Doane University, where I study. Bringing back some of the lab skills I gained here will offer me a chance to continue doing longer research projects.”
Autumn also traveled a long way for this internship — from Doane University in Nebraska and her home in South Dakota. When asked about being in New York State for the first time, Autumn highlighted her family’s reaction. “My parents had no idea where I was going. They thought I’d be in a giant city. When they came to visit Ithaca, I think it finally clicked for them. It’s basically South Dakota, since Ithaca is a small town and it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere. But it’s humid here, man.”
There’s one thing neither Autumn nor her parents will get over anytime soon: “Those things you call hills here– they’re mountains. We have the Black Hills in South Dakota, and those are actual hills. Buffalo Street? That’s a mountain.”