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By Matt Hughes
LEWISBURG, Pa. — In its recent history, the Botanical Society of America (BSA) has never awarded more than seven Undergraduate Research Awards in a year. This year, Bucknell students took home three of them.
Ally Boni '15, Gemma Dugan '13 and Anna Freundlich '14 were awarded grants from the society in April. The BSA is the foremost group promoting the study of plants in America, and among the top societies of its kind in the world.
The selection of three Bucknell students for research awards testifies to the academic rigor demonstrated by the University's undergraduates, said Chris Martine, associate professor of biology and David Burpee chair in plant genetics and research.
"One of the strengths of biology at Bucknell is how many students get involved in undergraduate research under the mentorship of the faculty here," Martine said. "We have an unusually high rate of student publications in peer-reviewed journals and it speaks to the standards that we've set as a department and the rigor with which the science gets done."
While the awards themselves are small — about $200 each — they provide recognition among peers and an excellent exercise in proposal writing, an essential skill for any researcher, Martine said. All three of the undergraduate scholars are also recipients of summer research fellowships from the biology department, which provide housing grants and stipends for a 10-week period in which they will work as full-time researchers.
Two of their research projects coincide with Martine's own study of rare relatives of the eggplant in Australia. Dugan is currently accompanying Martine and Associate Professor of Biology Beth Capaldi on a research expedition to Australia's Northern Territory, near Darwin. She is collecting data for a biochemical analysis of how herbivorous insects treat the wild eggplants based on the sex of the plant. Boni will use specimens collected by the team for a genetic analysis of variation within two wild eggplant species.
Boni said her research will employ next generation genomics tools — the first time such advanced techniques have been used in the study of wild eggplants — and will provide an exciting early experience in the career path she may one day pursue.
"I plan on going to medical school after graduating, and potentially focusing on genetics as part of my career," Boni said. "I am lucky to have the opportunity to sequence and analyze a genome as an undergraduate."
Freundlich has her focus turned much closer to home. She will undertake a plant community survey on the banks of the Susquehanna River to examine the effects of invasive plant species, in particular garlic mustard and Japanese knotweed.
Like the others, her work will have the real-world impact of helping scientists understand the world around us, and that, Martine said, is the real benefit of research.
"I tell my students that awards are nice and the recognition is really great but the science is what's most important," he said. "That's the part that they haven't done yet. They have to do the real work, which is I think really exciting."