Students examine grapevines at Cornell's NYS Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York.

Course integrates science, language, culture and research at Chilean vineyards

A fall semester science course that ended with a winter-break trip to South America offered students a unique opportunity to combine several passions into one memorable package.

“This course fused my love of science, innovation and travel. Most science classes do not allow me to utilize my language skills or explore other cultures and countries,” says Madisen Swallow ’18. “We were in Chile to embrace the culture, language and people just as much as we were there to explore science and diagnostic techniques – this made the class balanced and fun.”

Jeremy Thompson, research associate and lecturer in the School of Integrative Plant Science, points out to students a crucial detail of test results on the screen in the lab.

Her classmates agree that the course – Molecular Diagnostics: From Lab to Viñedo – was a positive learning experience. The course, which debuted in 2017, offers undergraduate and graduate students hands-on laboratory training and theory with an overseas experience that integrates language and culture.

“I had to learn to collaborate with a whole class of students, which is pretty different from most of the lab work I have done individually or in small teams,” says Jane Wei ’18. “Communicating with everyone, especially when things didn’t go as planned, was often difficult but crucial.”

Jeremy Thompson, research associate and lecturer in the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS) in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), was the lead faculty member for the course, which he developed with support from a 2016 Internationalizing the Cornell Curriculum grant from Global Cornell.

“Globalization and the increased movement of people, plants and animals across the planet brings new challenges in combatting the spread of pathogens,” says Thompson. “This new course offers a theoretical and practical introduction to the main molecular diagnostic methods employed by researchers today for the control and monitoring of disease spread.”

Using plants as a model organism in lab class at Cornell, 20 students applied multiple established and novel molecular techniques to determine the cause of disease, manifested in a range of symptoms. Although the methodologies are applicable to animal and plant health, the focus was on grapevine diseases in Chile’s major wine-production region.

As part of the course, students visited the Animal Health Diagnostic Lab at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York, run by CALS, where scientists from local diagnostics company Rheonix presented students with insights into cutting-edge methods and related federal regulations.

During fall semester on the Ithaca campus, the students began learning how to speak conversationally and technically with students, faculty and collaborators in Chile.

Jumpstart classes and Foreign Languages Across the Curriculum/Chilean Spanish for Molecular Diagnostics classes helped prepare the students for immersion in a Spanish-speaking culture. They were paired with students at Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago to practice conversational Spanish via social media before the winter break session.

Students collect vine samples for testing in the lab.

Cornell students applied their diagnostic and language skills during a two-week winter break trip to Chile in January, where they took samples from vineyards and analyzed them in a field laboratory.

“The Cornell students are smart, very attentive and quite interested in Chilean winemaking and local traditions,” says Mauricio Lolas, an agronomist and phytopathologist with the University of Talca’s Faculty of Agricultural Sciences. “We discussed the technology of Chilean viticulture and wine production … introduced them to Chilean culture and gave them a tour of the university. It was a real pleasure to have them here with us.”

In Talca, the students visited the Center for Research and Innovation at the Concha y Toro winery.

“I learned the breadth of new molecular diagnostic techniques that currently exist and trends in the development of new technologies,” says Paula Fogel ’20. “This class was huge for me in terms of helping me start my career as a scientist.”

Says Serena Lotreck ’19: “My biggest academic/personal accomplishment was using my Spanish on the last day of our trip to have a conversation about plant biology … As someone who wants to study plant biology in graduate school, it was amazing to be able to use my newly acquired language skills to talk to professionals in the field about their work.”

After four days of lab work, analyzing 57 samples, the students visited the coastal cities of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar. On their return to a snowy Ithaca, the students wrapped up the experience with a scientific report on their findings.

Future plans, says Thompson, are for the course to expand to provide a range of practical options for aspiring molecular biological researchers.

Email Thompson for enrollment information.

Jeri Wall is director of communication for the Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs.

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