Transforming Into Scientists: Meet the 2022 REU Internship Cohort

Each year the Danforth Center hosts undergraduate students from across the country for our Research Experience for Undergraduates internship program. For most REU interns, the way they leave the program is not the way they come into it. “Within just eleven weeks, we see the interns develop into real scientists who are asking interesting questions,” says Dr. Sona Pandey, Member and Principal Investigator. “It is an amazing transformation to watch. If I can motivate just one intern to stay in science, I know that I’ve done something good.” 

Sona has been with the program for twelve years now. During that time, she has helped push the program forward to encompass more than just lab experiences. Today, REU interns are exposed to industry opportunities, the start-up community in 39 North, networking opportunities with REU interns at other sites like the Missouri Botanical Gardens, and the critical importance of science communication with the public.

Dr. Tessa Burch-Smith, Associate Member and Principal Investigator, is new to the REU program as a co-director this year, but she brings experience working with REU students from the University of Tennessee. She gets energy from interacting with early career scientists.  “Their enthusiasm for science and openness to new ideas and possibilities are two things that I remind myself to keep in focus,” says Tessa. “The diversity of students and their varying backgrounds, experiences and goals have been very interesting to observe and learn about.”

Keep reading to meet three 2022 Danforth Center REU interns. 

Meet Abigail Senne

Abigail Senne is a student at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where she studies biochemistry. As an REU intern, she is contributing to research in the Nusinow Lab

What Abigail is looking forward to during her REU internship experience:
There are a lot of things I’m anticipating: learning more lab techniques, gaining experience in working in a research lab, and furthering my education through the REU activities! More than anything, however, I’m excited to try a little of everything – field work, writing, and molecular biology, among other topics. 

Abigail Senne, a biochemistry student at the University of Colorado - Colorado Springs, interning in the Nusinow Lab at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

Why she is excited to be an REU intern at the Danforth Center:
Knowing that the Danforth Center is at the geographical center of agriculture, biotechnology, and land use in the US is very motivating to me. The work done here at the Danforth Center, of which I’ve managed to see only a tiny slice, is incredibly wide in scope. I’m also excited to be staying in Saint Louis for the first time, with great proximity to Washington University, Missouri Botanical Gardens, and related resources.  

Her future career goals:
Reading about proteomics and bioinformatics has fascinated me over my last few semesters and made me more curious about the world, and I would love to take on a grad school project in one of those areas! I would like to attend graduate school with a biochemistry focus, although I haven’t yet decided on a career path afterward. I hope to continue to do basic science wherever I end up! 

Meet Melanie Cabrera

Melanie Cabrera is a student at the University of Florida. As an REU intern, she is contributing to research in the Baxter Lab.

What Melanie is looking forward to during her REU internship experience:
I am excited to learn how to utilize the R programming language to analyze big datasets. Oftentimes, scientists will design and conduct an experiment, then send off their data to be analyzed by a data scientist or bioinformatician. I personally think that is the most interesting part of a research project. I want to learn how to analyze my own data so that I can perform my experiment from beginning to end. 

Melanie Cabrera, a student at University of Florida, interning in the Baxter Lab at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

Why she is excited to be an REU intern at the Danforth Center:
I am very excited to be an REU intern at the Danforth Center because they are a leading plant science research center. Their work is focused on utilizing plant science to improve the human condition while making an environmental impact, which aligns with my personal goals.  I am also very excited to learn from all the talented individuals that work here as I go through the different workshops.

Her future career goals:
I want to pursue a PhD degree in Plant Breeding with a project focusing on how to make the crops we are so reliant on (corn, soybeans, wheat, etc.), more environmentally friendly. Usually the focus is yield, which is very important to feed the growing population, however, if we do not also care about the environment, we will have no usable soil to plant these crops, no safe air for us to breathe, no freshwater to drink. These are all concerns that are pressing, so I hope with my research and my career I can make a contribution towards more sustainable and environmentally conscious agricultural practices.

Meet Zachary Von Behren

Zachary Von Behren is a student at Pomona College, where he studies molecular biology. As an REU intern, he is contributing to research in the Carrington Lab

What Zachary is looking forward to during his REU internship experience:
Getting a taste of what it would be like to work doing research full time! I come from a primarily undergraduate institution, so there have been fewer opportunities to be immersed in the type of environment that the REU program offers. Apart from the research experience, I’m also excited to meet more people with similar interests and learn about their different career trajectories - I always find it fascinating to hear about the diversity of paths that people take throughout their science journeys.

Why he is excited to be an REU intern at the Danforth Center:
What first drew me to the Danforth Center was reading about the research being done here, particularly in terms of impact on human life. My main reason for being in science (other than science being super cool) is the pursuit of knowledge that can drastically improve the world we live in. I think that the Danforth Center’s mission and core values align well with that reason, which is what ultimately excites me most about being here.

Zachary Von Behren, a molecular biology student at Pomana College in California, interning in the Carrington Lab at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

His future career goals:
I’ll be going into my last year of college this fall, so the plan is to apply to graduate school, with the specific programs most likely being a mix of microbiology and plant biology. My two biggest interests right now are climate change mitigation and the uses of plants and microbes in medicine, so I’d love to do work on one or both of those topics as I complete my PhD. If my interests haven’t changed by the time I’ve completed graduate school, I plan on either working for a research organization like the Danforth Center or a biotech company doing work I find compelling. That said, I know that some change is inevitable, so I can’t say with certainty where I’ll be; however, I can say that regardless of where I find myself, it will be a place in which I can work towards creating a better world for future generations.

The REU internship program is a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Site sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The Danforth Center thanks them for their generous support.