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Like + Follow = Share: Mentorship Matters

Art Direction By Ellen Leventry '95 Text by David Nutt Photos by Robyn Wishna

No matter the route to CALS, the direction life takes after graduation can be profoundly impacted by mentoring along the way. Partnership and collaboration have long been hallmarks of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, powered by connections among faculty, staff and students. While faculty point students toward opportunities and lead by example, the students energize and inspire their mentors in equal measure. These students and their mentors have shared expertise, shared experiences and now shared photos.

Let us introduce you to the promising young talent at CALS and the faculty members who are guiding their way. We have a molecular biologist investigating neurons, a food science student studying milk shelf life, a communications majors with an eye on medical school, a horticulture professor whose research blooms, and the first-ever dual major in landscape architecture and fine arts.

Albert Zhang with Chun HanBranching Out

It was a “gut feeling” rather than a long deliberation that brought Albert Zhang ’15 from New Brunswick, Canada, to Cornell, where he is now working with Chun Han to decipher the secret of dendrites—those branches that extend off nerve cells and collect synaptic or sensory information—particularly their development and degeneration in the sensory neurons of fly larva. Zhang, a biological sciences major and recipient of the Dextra Undergraduate Research Grant, was the first student tapped by Han, the Nancy M. and Samuel C. Fleming Assistant Professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, to join his lab. Together they explore how dendrites in fly larva’s sensory neurons degenerate during metamorphosis and what mechanisms control this process, ultimately deciding whether the neurons die or assume a different function in fly adulthood. Meanwhile, Han enjoys watching his undergraduate students metamorphose into seasoned researchers, tailoring their research projects to suit their own evolving interests while staying true to the focus of the lab. It is the perfect fit for Zhang, who is interested in exploring all aspects of biology, including a concentration in marine biology. Just like the dendrites, he loves branching out.

Rachel Erlebacher with Allison ChatrchyanFraming the Discussion


Rachel Erlebacher ’16 didn’t have to look far for an opportunity to get hands-on experience working on climate change efforts last summer. The environmental science and sustainability major took an internship at Cornell Cooperative Extension Dutchess County, only a few miles down the road from her hometown of Pleasant Valley, N.Y. Erlebacher interviewed farmers in the Hudson Valley about their perceptions of climate change and what they are doing to adapt to it. Taking care to use neutral phrases like “extreme weather” and “climate variability” so as not to influence their responses, Erlebacher videotaped the interviews, and throughout the fall she worked as a research assistant under Allison Chatrchyan, the director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Change and Agriculture (CICCA), editing the footage into five- to ten-minute clips and posting them on YouTube to be used for peer-to-peer education and outreach. They will be an asset to Chatrchyan—who has worked as an associate program officer for the United Nations Environment Programme in Paris among other positions—as she facilitates research, education and outreach to reduce the agricultural sector’s collective impact on the climate, while also helping farmers become more resilient to climate change. Erlebacher says Chatrchyan’s career trajectory has given her a new perspective on the environmental field and is following in her global footsteps by heading to Australia for spring semester.

Tim Klaver with Bill MillerBusiness is Blooming

The Dutch surname Klaver means ‘clover’ in English, so it’s only fitting that Tim Klaver was raised surrounded by horticulture in North Holland, where his family operates a tulip farm. Klaver is currently an intern on this side of the pond in the Section of Horticulture’s Flower Bulb Research Program with professor Bill Miller in the School of Integrative Plant Science. Every year Cornell hosts one such Dutch student intern, and Klaver was enthusiastic about signing up, given his … roots. While he has plenty of practical work experience with tulips, the native of Spanbroek came to Cornell to expand his knowledge of other flowers, such as daffodils and hyacinths, making ornamental floriculture expert Miller the perfect mentor. Miller, like Klaver, has horticulture in his blood, having been raised by a professor who earned an M.S. and Ph.D. from Cornell’s floriculture and ornamental horticulture department in the 1950s, and who experimented in the very same greenhouses he and Klaver work in now. With a childhood spent among commercial greenhouses in California, Miller’s main academic interests are floriculture, greenhouse cropping systems and the physiology of ornamental plants. He conducts research that provides New York and North American growers with the means to produce a more environmentally friendly product efficiently, research that Klaver is keen to take note of, as his interest in tulips isn’t only academic. Having previously studied business at Clusius College Hoorn in Holland, he hopes to take what he has learned at Cornell back to his home country to launch his own tulip company.

Forrest Crawford with Peter TrowbridgeMaking the Grade

Student. Athlete. Entrepreneur. Crepe maker. Forrest Crawford ’15 has carved out several unique niches at Cornell, not the least of which is being the first ever undergraduate dual-degree in landscape architecture and fine arts. When Forrest came to Cornell he already had his associate’s degree in visual arts with a focus on ceramics and sculpture. With his sculptures growing more material- and landscape-based while also increasing in size, “the art department didn’t know what to do with me,” Crawford says. But Landscape Architecture Department Chair Peter Trowbridge knew exactly how Crawford should make the most of his unique skill set, helping him to embrace his iterative process. After 40 years at Cornell, it’s not surprising that Trowbridge has become something of a touchstone for those who have passed through the department’s doors over the years, including Crawford. Students from as far back as the 1970s still contact him, and those who are asking for recommendations no longer seek internships and first jobs, but deanships. Trowbridge relishes observing the long arc of his students’ careers and the way their fresh ideas inform his own private practice. And while Trowbridge points out that landscape architecture is aptly called a practice, in that it is a lifelong project that requires repetition, Seattle-native Crawford is familiar with other forms of practice as well, playing for the men’s Varsity Baseball team and co-owning Collegetown Crepes, a food truck that serves up savory and sweet treats late at night at the corner of Dryden and Eddy.

Poppy McLeod’s Group Communication Lab membersCliques that Click

Associate Professor of Communication Poppy McLeod’s Group Communication Lab studies the factors that affect communication, language and decision making within and between human groups, particularly the way personalities affect—and are affected by—group dynamics. Navigating group dynamics is nothing new to lab members Amy Christophe ’16, who grew up with three older Cornellian brothers, and Elijah Joseph Weber-Han ’16, who spent five years in the United State Marine Corps, which is what drew them to working with McLeod. Majoring in communication with a minor in biology, Christophe has worked with the lab for three semesters studying small group behavior, research she hopes will strengthen her ability to one day run her own pediatric neurology practice. A transfer student from SUNY Broome Community College, Weber-Han says that his interest in communication stretches back to his childhood, when he used to listen to old-time radio dramas with his father. Hailing from Hoosier country, Weber-Han is now majoring in communication with a minor in video production, focusing on the socio-cultural side of technology and communication.  He hopes to expand on his current group dynamics research in graduate school by exploring cooperative artificial intelligence (AI), specifically how to make AI that actively collaborates with humans. He not only relishes the research but also the sense of community that McLeod instills in the lab itself. McLeod makes it a point to populate her lab with graduate and undergraduate students and have them work closely together. As a result, the undergraduates are able to develop a deeper interest in research, and the grad students hone their own mentorship skills. At the same time, McLeod says she learns a great deal from both undergraduate and graduate students, finding inspiration in their ideas, experiences and perspectives on research and life.

Aileen Chang with Mark WysockiWise Council

It could be said that Aileen Chang ’15 is the embodiment of the college’s breadth and depth of disciplines and mission of sustainability. A dual major in applied economics and management and natural and environmental systems, with a minor in real estate in the School of Hotel Administration, one of Chang’s goals is to bring together business and environmental science around the shared theme of sustainability in the community. It’s this commitment and passion that fuels this native Californian’s academic interest and is also reflected in her involvement with the CALS Student Advisory Council, where faculty adviser Mark Wysocki, senior lecturer in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, finds her energy inspiring. Director of undergraduate studies in Atmospheric Sciences and faculty adviser to the Cornell Chapter of the American Meteorological Society, Wysocki helps the students on the council—which holds an advisory position to Dean Boor—prioritize issues, shape their proposals and interact with the administration. In addition to his passion for his research in air pollution, forecasting and weather analysis, his greatest enjoyment comes from engaging with his students, and he remains constantly awed by their ideas and their commitment. Also a member of Cornell University Sustainable Design, Chang’s commitment to improving the student experience can be seen in several recent initiatives of the CALS Student Advisory Council: working with the administration to improve student course evaluations, approving special funding requests and installing additional outdoor lighting along Tower Road to increase visibility and safety for all pedestrians.

Wendy Wolford and students Continental Concern

Whether hailing from North Carolina, California or Korea, Cornell has offered unparalleled opportunities and an environment of collaboration to three women at different points in their academic careers. Wendy Wolford, a professor of development sociology whose research addresses agrarian change with a focus on social movements and the struggle for access to resources, was lured to CALS from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after a decade, thanks to the intelligence and energy of Cornell students, and their drive to do meaningful work and make a difference in the world. Youjin Chung originally hails from Korea, but came to Cornell by way of the United Kingdom, where she studied and worked for a non-governmental organization that specializes in international development. It was there that Chung worked on issues of land, food security and gender and the ways those areas intersect. Hoping to gain a scholarly perspective on those issues, she discovered Professor Wolford’s writings, which led her to Cornell. Now a third-year Ph.D. student in development sociology, Chung is researching gender dimensions and the implications of a large-scale land acquisition for industrial sugarcane production in coastal Tanzania. In the western hemisphere, Wolford is working with Alex Schmall ’16, who has wanted to explore the social justice side of agriculture ever since she was a child growing up in the small farm town of Madera, Calif. It was there, she says, right outside her front door, that she saw immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador picking the fruit that Americans would eat but that the workers themselves could not afford. She is passionate about global health, nutrition and development and is double majoring in international agriculture and rural development and development sociology with minors in global health, nutrition and health, and international development. She has traveled to every country in Central America—including working on organic farms in Costa Rica and Nicaragua and serving as a medical translator in Mexico. Wolford relishes the collaboration within her research group and cites Chung and Schmall as the kind of hard-working, committed students for which she moved to Ithaca. “To have eight or nine other people around you who are interested in the same questions but looking at them from a different angle, how fabulous is that?” she says. 

Students around Cornellis the fiberglass cowA Moveable Feast

When was the last time you heard a college instructor described as “amazing,” a “guardian angel” and a “fashionista?” That’s how students describe Alicia Orta-Ramirez, director of the Undergraduate Program in the Department of Food Science. Since coming to Cornell from Michigan State University in 2007, she has played a pivotal role in the development of the department’s undergraduate students; helping them navigate rigorous schedules, connecting them with educational and extracurricular opportunities, and helping them cope with academic as well as personal pressures. She has been a mentor to transfer student Susana Jimenez ’15, who left chemistry behind and embraced food science as a major. It was a prescient decision, as Jimenez is co-captain of the MARS 2014-2015 Product Development Team and the Cornell IFTSA (Institute of Food Technologists Student Association) Team, which has been on a three-year winning streak for developing a new food idea and carrying the concept through marketing and production. Her Mars Product Development teammate Maia Vernacchia ’15 decided to study food science at CALS because it combined her lifelong love of baking with her interest in chemistry (with additional credit to Alton Brown’s Good Eats and Cornell’s introductory food science class’ ice cream making project). A Cornell gymnast who has been selected as a recipient of the SUNY Chancellor Award for Student Excellence, Vernacchia is minoring in nutrition and plans to embark on a career in product development, having recently worked on the Shakeology line of products for Beachbody. Sam Reichler ’15 started his food science career in Orta-Ramirez’s Food Microbiology Lab and is now exploring his keen interest in shelf-stable food with the Milk Quality Improvement Program, where he is currently researching mold growth. Reichler served as teaching assistant for Orta-Ramirez’s Food Analysis class and, as part of an independent study, also helped set up a new lab activity that uses readily available instrumentation for a hands-on experiment that will prepare food science students going onto internships. When not in the lab, Reichler co-captains the Food Science college bowl team, which Orta-Ramirez advises. The team won nationals two years ago, and he is hopeful they will retake the title when Cornell hosts the North Atlantic competition this spring. With such diverse and driven students, it’s no wonder that Orta-Ramirez takes great satisfaction in sharing in their journeys as they progress from shy, tentative freshmen to confident seniors thriving in their disciplines.