Students on the Cutting Edge
Research positions and internships allow undergraduates to make substantive contributions to knowledge - and give them a competitive advantage when they enter the job market
CALS undergrads are an impressive bunch, eager to get the most out of their time at college. As they tackle the challenging coursework required for their degrees, many also pursue research and internship experiences to augment their education—and help prepare them for their future careers.
Such experiences can be found on campus and off, with companies, nonprofits and governmental agencies. Some are summer gigs, others run year-round. The work students perform in these roles is as diverse as the disciplines that CALS covers: basic biological research, crop management trials, marketing campaigns, food product development, nutrition-focused meal planning and so much more.
“These experiences are important because they allow students to test-drive potential career paths, to get a true sense of what they would be doing in a job setting, which in many cases can’t be grasped from what they learn in the classroom or read in a book,” says entomologist Rick Lindroth, until recently associate dean for research at CALS.
They also help CALS students stand out in competitive environments. “When organizations review candidates for jobs and graduate school applications, it’s the transferable skills gained from research labs, internships and similar experiences that set students apart from each other,” says Megan O’Rourke of CALS Career Services.
CALS prides itself on being a great college for such experiences, a place where researchers are eager to have undergrads come work in their labs. CALS Career Services maintains strong connections with state and national organizations looking for talent and helps place students in internships—and jobs.
At the most recent UW–Madison Fall Career Fair, there were more than 110 organizations recruiting students from CALS disciplines, notes O’Rourke.
For researchers and organizations that hire CALS student researchers and interns, there are a number of benefits from investing in young scientists and professionals.
According to Lindroth, who has had a number of undergrads in his lab over the years, they help move projects forward, including some that might not otherwise get done. “And they bring a level of energy, enthusiasm and wonder that is refreshing,” he notes.
To illustrate the benefits of these experiences for students, mentors and organizations alike, here are some recent research and internship experiences of six CALS students.
Name that plant!
Thanks largely to the efforts of Saige Henkel, visitors to Allen Centennial Garden who ask themselves “I wonder what plant this is?” have a new way to find out.
Allen Centennial Garden is a gem on the CALS campus, a resource for students, area horticulturalists and home gardeners alike. The 2.5-acre garden features 21 mini-gardens, from English to rock to native Wisconsin, showcasing more than 1,000 kinds of plants. It’s no wonder that most visitors need some help in identifying them.
Henkel, a junior majoring in landscape architecture, led the effort to assemble the garden’s new Online Plant Database, an interactive public platform where students and community members can search through the garden’s entire plant collection and find photos and key information about the plants.
“People can use specific filters to find exactly which plant they are looking for. It’s a great tool for when you’re in the garden on the weekend and staff aren’t around to identify plants for you,” says Henkel, who created more than 800 of the database’s 1,100 entries so far.
Henkel started interning at Allen Garden in spring 2015. Her career plan involves joining a landscape architecture firm—preferably one that specializes in planting design and sustainable urban development—where she will likely spend most of her time in front of a computer doing design work. Prior to this, however, she knew she wanted some kind of practical horticultural work experience.
“I wanted to get my hands dirty and learn more about the physical maintenance of the plants I’d be putting in my designs,” says Henkel.
Allen Garden provides a number of opportunities for undergrads to have meaningful experiences. When garden director Ben Futa joined the garden in 2015, he created six year-round “student director” positions.
“Student directors take an active role in everything we do, from planning public programs to envisioning new horticultural displays. This real-world experience is preparing them for success in a competitive job market,” says Futa.
Henkel was in the first cohort of students that Futa hired. She’s had a number of different responsibilities at the garden since she joined, including leading a major garden design project. She developed a design for a new bulb lawn in the English garden—and then got to plant it and see it bloom last spring.
“I’ve definitely beefed up my horticultural knowledge, which was my original goal in applying for this internship,” notes Henkel. “Working here, I’ve also started to realize that landscape architects work on a variety of projects, from hardscape plazas to public garden spaces, and it’s really shown me the variety of possibilities that I’ll have with my degree.”
Two ways to publish
Eddie Ruiz is a go-getter. As a freshman, he took a student employee position in the lab of Dr. Timothy Kamp, a cardiology professor and stem cell researcher. He started out maintaining equipment and cell lines. Over time, as Ruiz learned more about the lab’s research program, he started contributing to various research projects, including helping to develop a protocol to produce a special type of heart cell, called a cardiac fibroblast, from human pluripotent stem cells.
Ruiz, a genetics major, quickly realized he’s not the only undergrad doing meaningful research on campus, with significant results to share. In fall 2015, he teamed up with Stephanie Seymour, a molecular biology and economics double major, to give more undergrads an opportunity to go through the publication process and share their findings. The duo founded the Journal of Undergraduate Science and Technology (JUST). Student research journals are already popular at other research universities such as Caltech, Harvard and the University of Texas at Austin.
“People tend to think undergrads are working on small parts of a research project. While this is definitely true, there are also many students like Stephanie and me who are working independently on research projects that justify greater attention,” says Ruiz.
Ruiz and Seymour, serving as coeditors-in-chief, assembled a team of 30 undergrad volunteers to put together the journal. Ruiz calls it “an incredibly challenging yet rewarding leadership experience.” The group tackled—from scratch—the tasks of careful review of scientific research, editing, design, marketing and publication production. The first issue came out in May 2016, while the second appeared in December.
“JUST has given our editors—who are all UW–Madison undergrads—a unique opportunity to learn how to dissect and critique an array of scientific manuscripts. JUST has trained undergraduates how to peer-review scientific papers and enabled students who are passionate about art and science to explore this intersection through the design of our publication and website,” says Ruiz. JUST’s website, justjournal. org, which houses its online publications, has been visited more than 10,000 times in the one year since its creation.
And JUST is not the only publication experience Ruiz will have during his time at CALS. After attending a scientific talk with fellow members of Tim Kamp’s lab, Ruiz came up with a research idea and took it to Kamp.
“His research project was largely motivated by a seminar in which he learned about 2-photon microscopy and its application to biological research,” says Kamp. “He knew the questions we were investigating in the lab and thought this technique could help us understand the matrix proteins that cardiac fibroblasts generate.”
Kamp’s group is in the process of preparing a scientific paper describing this project. Ruiz, now a senior, will be a co-author.
“It has been wonderful to see him master this somewhat challenging methodology and optimize data analysis,” says Kamp. “Eddie is an undergraduate driven to explore and understand, which will serve him very well in a future career in science.”
Driving Arlington ARS toward precision ag
Ryan Seffinga spent a good part of last summer in an ATV driving around the Arlington Agricultural Research Station. While it may sound like an aimless task, it was actually a key step in Arlington’s ongoing effort to adopt precision agriculture technologies.
Over the course of three weeks, Seffinga BS’16 navigated his souped-up ATV, which was outfitted with a GPS receiver, a cellular modem and a monitor, around each of the station’s 350 research plots, gathering field boundary data to input into the station’s new farm management system—which Seffinga also helped install.
“I helped set up a server at the station’s headquarters and installed a farm management program on it. This program helps automate data collection and makes it easy for those with access to view key data for any given field,” explains Seffinga, who was a summer intern at Arlington last year.
Now, monitors attached to the station’s equipment—including the forage chopper and combine—and located around the grounds can send crop yield, soil moisture and other key data directly into the station’s new program, where staff can assess the information, field by field.
This big project likely wouldn’t have come together last summer without Seffinga’s help, notes his supervisor, Kim Meyers, assistant superintendent at Arlington.
“As with any farm, there is never enough time in the day to get everything done,” says Meyers. “But Ryan got it all set up and got the pieces working together. He was a huge asset.”
Meyers expects big payoffs down the line. “With enough years of data, we can make educated decisions about where our research and management practices should go in the future,” she says.
Seffinga graduated this past December with a bachelor’s degree in biological systems engineering. On campus, he was involved in the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) student organization, ASABE’s collegiate quarter-scale tractor design competition, and the Engineers in Business student organization.
He already has a position with John Deere as a product design engineer for hydraulic excavators, and he hopes to start his own engineering and sales business someday.
Seffinga says his time at Arlington shaped his goals and helped him realize the importance of precision agriculture. “
I now know that the agricultural industry is investing more money into the precision side of things,” he says. “By remaining involved in this part of the industry, I can expect tremendous opportunities to present themselves, especially in new product development.”
Improving food safety
As a freshman, Makala Bach had already figured out that she wanted to be a food science major. Tough decision over, right? Not so much.
“I soon found out that the world of food science is a broad one, and that I would have to narrow down my interests even further—and the Food Research Institute’s summer internship program seemed like the perfect way to do that,” says Bach.
The Food Research Institute (FRI), housed in CALS, is a premier center for the study of microbial foodborne pathogens. Outreach is part of the institute’s mission—helping communities, government agencies and companies identify and resolve food safety issues. Another component of FRI’s mission is education.
“We developed the summer undergraduate research program to provide students, who may or may not have been thinking of careers in the food industry, exposure to important issues in food safety,” says FRI director Chuck Czuprynski, who helped establish the program in 2012.
Participating students work on research projects, discuss food safety topics with campus faculty and take field trips to food processing plants to learn about their challenges.
For her program, Bach worked on a research project sponsored by the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors with the purpose of helping Wisconsin meat processors improve the safety of their processes and products. With guidance from a number of FRI faculty and staff mentors, including Jeff Sindelar, Andy Milkowksi and Kathy Glass, Bach studied the growth of the foodborne pathogen Staphylococcus aureus on the surface of ham that utilized slow-cooking (aka thermal processing) procedures to assess the risk of toxin production by the bacteria. The results of this study will provide practical solutions for ensuring that slow thermal processing procedures used in many Wisconsin meat products (examples: bone-in hams and summer sausage) won’t result in food safety concerns.
Bach received a lot of guidance at the start. Her mentors helped her set up the experimental design. One of them taught her how to pipette. Another, how to make ham. Before long, however, she was working primarily on her own.
“We work very hard to make sure it’s a good first research experience for our students,” says Sindelar, a CALS professor of animal sciences and UW–Extension meat specialist.
And for Bach, it certainly was.
“During the first week or so, there were days and days of monotonous prep work. Everyone in the lab told me to just wait until I had data—that that’s when the exciting part would begin. And they were right,” says Bach. “There’s nothing more exciting than being able to draw conclusions that might actually have an impact, all based on work you’ve done.”
Bach ended up staying on at FRI working in the applied research lab to help finish the project. The team is planning to publish the results in a peer-reviewed food safety journal.
“Bach’s work will have a practical impact. It affects many meat manufacturers around the state and the nation,” notes Sindelar.
And there’s another positive outcome: Bach is now considering going to graduate school to study food microbiology.
Getting a global perspective
When Abagail Catania, as a freshman, attended a Career Fair run by MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences, a national professional development society), she figured it was too early for her to land an internship. But a John Deere rep encouraged her to apply, and even gave her an hour to polish her resume before conducting an on-the-spot interview.
“That employee took a leap of faith and allowed me to fix up my resume, and ultimately I was hired during the second-round interview stage,” says Catania.
That summer, Catania moved to Moline, Illinois to work as a sales and marketing intern for John Deere’s construction and forestry division in order fulfillment and logistics. One of her projects involved assessing the shipment and storage of large machinery being sent to five U.S. ports from Japan. In certain ports, older units were sitting in storage too long, taking up valuable space.
The work involved digging into five years’ worth of pertinent sales data, and, for Catania, it was exciting because it had a clear end goal: to help John Deere improve operations.
“As a student going through classes, we are assigned work with data sets, but we don’t see how it’s applied or how to pull it from an actual database. I was able to do this in my everyday work environment, and I was able to learn a great deal about different ways to analyze data,” says Catania, who is majoring in agricultural business management with a certificate in criminal justice.
The following summer Catania returned to John Deere for a second internship, this time as a global marketing intern with the company’s worldwide customer experience team. This position was perhaps a bit closer to Catania’s heart, as she has a taste for international travel and dreamed of someday working abroad.
The work put her in contact with employees in John Deere’s various foreign offices as she led an effort to revamp the company’s customer experience survey process.
“I had to effectively communicate with key stakeholders from all over the world to ensure they were all aligned on how the survey process should take place,” says Catania.
It was another great experience, one that provided Catania with valuable networking opportunities and solidified her good feelings about the company.
“The intent of our internship programs is to provide meaningful assignments providing value to Deere while giving students valuable real-world experience,” says Gary Hohmann, a manager of outbound logistics and order fulfillment to Brazil. He supervised Catania’s first internship.
“It is great to know that I have people at John Deere who are looking out for me and want to support my career,” says Catania, who wants to work for an agricultural company in sales and marketing or marketing communications after she graduates in spring 2019.
But first, she’s spending a year abroad. Catania spent the past fall semester studying in London, and now she’s interning and volunteering in Nkokenjeru, Uganda, at a children’s aid organization. There she assists in social work along with supporting the village’s agricultural practices. It’s a dream come true for Catania, who hopes to continue helping improve people’s lives around the world.
Better health for all
When Jordan Gaal graduates from CALS, he’ll be able to add an interesting line to his resume: “Legislative advocacy on Capitol Hill.”
Gaal, a senior double-majoring in life sciences communication and political science, traveled to Washington, D.C., last summer as an intern for the Wisconsin Area Health Education Centers (AHEC). He was part of a state delegation advocating on behalf of the National AHEC Organization, which seeks to enhance access to quality health care around the nation, particularly for rural and underserved populations.
“We visited the offices of Senators Johnson and Baldwin as well as Representatives Grothman, Ribble, Moore, Kind, Pocan and Speaker Ryan to talk about our program, how it benefits Wisconsin and why it should continue to be funded,” says Gaal, whose position as Wisconsin AHEC’s statewide communications assistant continued into the school year.
For Gaal, it’s been the perfect internship to help him make a significant academic transition. When he first came to UW–Madison, he wanted to be a biological sciences researcher, but then he quickly figured out that his true passion lies in communications, advocacy and policy work.
“My general duties are primarily communications and marketing,” says Gaal. “I’ve had the opportunity to create documents for legislators and lawmakers to emphasize the importance of public health issues, such as the need for more health care workers in rural areas. And before heading to D.C., AHEC helped prepare me to make legislative visits.”
The internship, which will last through the end of the academic year, also has Gaal working on news releases, social media, a quarterly newsletter, an annual report, website maintenance and more. The position comes with attentive mentoring and coaching as well as ample independence to pursue assigned projects.
Gaal’s supervisor, Keri Robbins, assistant director of Wisconsin AHEC, takes pride in offering meaningful internship experiences to undergrads. The trip to D.C., she notes, was particularly valuable.
“It will serve Jordan well in future opportunities to engage in advocacy or policy work,” says Robbins. “And AHEC benefited from having the student voice represented in our meetings.”
After graduation, Gaal wants to pursue two advanced degrees—a master’s in public affairs and a master’s in public health—and get experience at a federal government agency. He’s looking for a career very much in line with AHEC’s goals, one that will put him in a position to help improve access to healthcare in rural communities.
“It’s a cause I believe in,” says Gaal.
This article was posted in 4 - Students, Beyond classroom experiences, Features, Spring 2017 and tagged Abagail Cantania, CALS students, Eddie Ruiz, Grow Spring 2017, Internships, Jordan Gaal, Makala Bach, Ryan Seffinga, Saige Henkel.