Danforth Center REU Internships Are Fostering Tomorrow’s Leaders and Problem Solvers

For eleven weeks each summer, a group of undergraduate students join the Danforth Center community as Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) interns, made possible through generous support from the National Science Foundation. In the REU internship, students are immersed in a rich research environment that lays the foundation for a career in plant science. Meet REU interns from years past, learn about how their internship impacted their careers, and find out where their journeys have taken them since their time at the Center.

Carlos Ortiz

Dr. Carlos Ortiz, National Program Leader at the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and former participant in the REU internship

Meet Dr. Carlos Ortiz, a Danforth Center REU intern in 2007. During his time at the Center, Carlos worked in the Schachtman Lab, studying potassium uptake by roots. Both the science he learned in the lab and the internship experience itself had a lasting impact on his life. “The internship at Danforth took me out of Texas and made me live in a community with ten other strangers for ten weeks,” explains Carlos. “The experience showed me that I can move to a place where I don’t know anyone and thrive. That has been a lesson I have used again and again from going to graduate school to moving to Washington DC and now Kansas City. I am still in touch with Daniel, my mentor at Danforth, even after he and I have made career changes. We still manage to circle back and catch up in life.”

Today, Dr. Ortiz continues to support science education in his current role as a National Program Leader at the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), where he manages the K-14 education and workforce development portfolio of education programs. “The programs and projects I oversee enhance and expand the education, science understanding, and workforce training opportunities of the student participants. This enables them to participate in the food and agricultural enterprise not only as part of the workforce, but also as informed consumers,” says Carlos. “My goal is to lead efficient programs that make a difference in students’ lives. I am a product of experiential learning programs and know firsthand how powerful these experiences can be.”

To anyone considering participating in the Danforth Center’s REU internship program, Carlos says, “Do it.” He encourages interns to push themselves out of their comfort zone in the same way he did. “Take the opportunity to go to a part of the country where you have never been. Expand your horizons and don't be afraid of trying new things. It is a science internship, so get your work done, but then hang the lab coat up and learn from your mentor and others around you.”

Anne Phillips

For Anne Phillips, her 2013 REU internship at the Danforth Center in Dr. Sam Wang’s lab was her first full-fledged science lab experience. “The REU internship fostered my passion for plant science,” says Anne. Anne enjoyed her experience so much, she came back to the Center as a graduate student. In Dr. Rebecca Bart’s lab, Anne studied bacterial disease outbreaks on cotton in the U.S., using comparative genomics of the pathogens to determine possible sources of the outbreak. She also studied the cotton host plants for possible sources of resistance. “The Danforth Center was the perfect place for me to start my career in plant science,” explains Anne. “Becky and the rest of the Danforth Center community opened my eyes to the many ways that you can approach plant science problems.”

Since graduating with her PhD, Anne has not moved far from the Danforth Center. Today, she is a scientist at NewLeaf Symbiotics, a plant microbiome company based in BRDG Park. At NewLeaf, Anne investigates how the class of beneficial microbes called pink pigmented facultative methylotrophs protect crops from a variety of diseases. “This is an exciting first job for me because I can use my pathology knowledge gained from Becky’s lab and apply it towards creating disease solutions for a large range of crops and pathogens,” says Anne. “The 39 North and the Danforth Center community have fostered me as a scientist from undergraduate intern to graduate student, and now as a professional in the scientific community.”

Andreya Dupree

As an REU intern in Dr. Christopher Topp’s lab in 2018, Andreya Dupree was immersed in her first research experience. The internship also helped her learn about the different opportunities in plant science. “The most important thing I learned during my internship experience was not to be intimidated by peers who may have more knowledge on certain subject matter than you do,” says Andreya. “This lesson has remained with me since I left the program in every role that I have taken. I do my best to never let imposter syndrome creep in and to learn as much as I can from those who may be more knowledgeable.” 

Today, Andreya is a Biological Science technician for the USDA. Upon obtaining her Master’s in Agronomy, she hopes to continue to the PhD level, eventually working her way to an Agronomist position. “I cannot stress enough how the Danforth Center REU internship gave me the confidence I needed to pursue graduate studies and other opportunities. During my internship I learned a lot about how data and computer science closely relate to plant science. I plan to use both as I complete my thesis research,” explains Andrea.

Anastasiya Andriyash

The REU internship at the Danforth Center helped solidify my goal of becoming a plant scientist,” says Anastasiya Andriyash, a 2019 REU intern in Dr. Sona Pandey’s lab. Throughout the internship, the variety of workshops and coordinated field trips exposed her to networking opportunities and new technical skills that she did not gain in her undergraduate studies. “Being surrounded by incredible plant biologists across a variety of research topics reaffirmed my desire to be in a community of researchers devoted to impacting the world through studying plants. My experiences from the Danforth Center REU internship have been invaluable as I pursue my PhD at Yale University,” explains Anastasiya.

A long-term goal of Anastasiya’s is to help mentor other early scientists and instill a passion for plant science in the same way her mentors have impacted her career. “I hope to be a part of and create a collaborative environment in which through science and research, I can better understand how we can use science to address the threat climate change poses to global food security and how best to mitigate this impact of environmental stress on plants.” she says. To anyone who is considering applying for an REU internship position at the Danforth Center, Anastasiya says, “If you have an interest in plant biology, the Danforth Center REU is one of the best places to spend your summer during your undergraduate career.”