Our Trainees

2020 Cohort

Alex Borowsky – My motivation as a plant biologist is to impact global food security, which is especially important now in a time when climate change threatens crop yields. As much as I believe basic research and foundational knowledge is important to find solutions, I also want to see the impact these findings can have for global agriculture. In my PhD research, I study how gene networks respond to water extreme stresses within specific cell layers in rice roots. With support from the Plants3D program, I want to use synthetic biology to translate knowledge of gene networks to manipulate aspects of root development and metabolism in crop plants to provide tolerance to water extreme stresses and nutrient limitation.

Isaac Diaz – My interest in synthetic biology stems from a desire to conduct research in translational plant biology, specifically related to agriculture. My family comes from a long line of farmers from Peñuelas, Puerto Rico. They grew enough food to sell at local markets, while providing enough for their large families. Because of this, I believe that farming is tightly bound to my culture. My first research experience was as a participant in Cornell University’s Summer Scholar Program. That interdisciplinary program allowed me to combine my interest in agriculture with research in an academic setting to unite plant biologists, plant pathologists, and entomologists to tackle the challenges faced in modern agriculture. That experience was one of the best of my life, and I seek the same type of experience from the collaborative environment fostered by the Plants3D program. I am interested in working to combat citrus greening disease, which has decimated the citrus industry in Puerto Rico and Florida. Particularly, the product-centric point of view in synthetic biology is very appealing to me. This perspective serves to distill our research ideas by focusing them on designing a product that will meet the needs of consumers, as opposed to developing our fundamental understanding of a process.

Rachael Hamby – My desire to be involved in research goes beyond making basic discoveries. In the face of worldwide population growth and climate change, we are now tasked with growing more food than ever, on less space, with ever increasing abiotic and biotic threats to plant health. To complicate matters, public distrust in science, particularly toward genetically modified organisms, must be combatted at every turn in order to make way for new technologies. Without training in translating basic research into industrial applications and science communication, it will be difficult for me to effectively deploy my discoveries, and knowledge, to help ensure food security in the future. I hope to translate discoveries and insights into plant-pathogen systems into tools that can be easily integrated into crop protection strategies. My hope is that participation in Plants3D will give me skills needed to develop collaborations with engineers and synthetic biologists who can aid my efforts.

Marcus Harland-Dunaway – My parents were both dedicated scientists and avid gardeners. When I was young we grew countless fruits and vegetables and I was always amazed by the vast array of treats that plants created for us. I was quickly drawn to the idea of engineering plants on the molecular level to fit new environments or purposes. It is exciting to think that I could develop something useful that could be used around the world by people I don’t even know. Of course, there are still public concerns about GMOs but I want to be a spokesperson that can help to shift public opinion on the safety of GMOs. Many biotechnologically modified crops are in use and help to solve problems around the world. I think that they part of the future of agriculture. I plan to have a career in industry where my work is likely to be released to people through the market where it can be useful. The Plants 3D program is giving me a fantastic opportunity to learn more about product design, entrepreneurship, and the economics behind making a successful product and business.

Jean Ae “Ruth” Kim – I study Phytochrome B (PHYB), an evolutionarily-conserved red and far-red light photoreceptor and temperature sensor in plants which regulates almost every facet of plant development and growth from seed germination to floral initiation. My research goal is to uncover the function of nuclear photobodies as gene regulatory hubs so that my findings can be applied to improve crop tolerance to environmental stressors. By joining the Plants3D program, I have the unique opportunity to directly test whether photobodies can act as sites for gene regulation and develop a system that can utilize intrinsic properties of the photobody to regulate gene expression in any organismal system. Since the Plants3D program encourages cross-disciplinary research and collaboration, I will be more able to take an engineering approach in my work to repurpose naturally occurring photobodies within plants to create a “synthetic nuclear body” that can turn on or off any target gene of interest.

Taylor Rose Myhre – As part of the Plants3D program, I hope to develop skills as an interdisciplinary researcher. I am interested in using synthetic biology approaches to characterize Citrus genes and biosynthetic pathways that are relevant to commercially-important fruit and tree qualities, as well as to produce Citrus metabolites in microbial systems. I also see the potential to further develop my interest in STEM education, including the development of programs that allow K-12 students to participate in authentic science experiences and recruit students from underrepresented groups as future plant scientists. 

Aida Tafrishi – The ability to synthetically redesign and manipulate organisms so that they produce the substances that we want, which is the basic concept of synthetic biology, sounds astonishing. I believe that this field of science is of great importance globally because it can dramatically impact our lives. It can be applied to promote health and save people’s lives around the world by reducing the rates of infectious diseases, creating more precise tools for disease detection, and producing new pharmaceutical and diagnosing products to treat several diseases such as malaria and cancer. It can also be used to reduce environmental harm, decrease our reliance on petrochemicals, create processes to produce alternative energy sources or promote health and environmental sensing. Moreover, its impact on agriculture can be extensive. Synthetic biology can be used to improve crop insect resistance, generate higher crop yields, develop crops with enhanced nutrition values, and to increase the photosynthetic performance of plants.

Sarah Thorwall – As a chemical engineer, my synthetic biology interests lie in engineering microbes as “reactors” to produce value-added chemicals. Billions of dollars annually are spent on agricultural chemicals, which can be used to promote plant growth or prevent devastating plant diseases. Additionally, plants are a wealth of interesting secondary metabolites, but they are not optimal industrial production hosts because of their low titers, slow growth, and large space requirements. Engineering microbes to produce these compounds in large bioreactors could address these process concerns and provide new sources for agricultural chemicals. Microbial metabolic engineering could be applied to the production of plant secondary metabolites or compounds which are applied to plants to improve agricultural productivity. Participating in this program would allow me to learn more about industrial biotechnology relating to plants and get a better understanding of opportunities available in that field.

Aimee N. Uyehara – Some of the most compelling science stories are the ones where research moved from the lab to the community. Growing up with an agricultural background in Hawai’i, I learned to appreciate the innovation of science by means of the Rainbow papaya. This delicious genetically modified fruit was created to be resistant to the papaya ringspot virus. On a small scale, the Rainbow papaya symbolizes the potential of translational research to save agricultural industries from devastating diseases. Stories such as that of the Rainbow papaya fuel my interest in translational research. I am excited about the Plants3D program because of the opportunity to think seriously about solutions to the world’s critical food and health needs. This program creates a framework and means to consider the way my research can contribute to crop improvement and human health. Often as a PhD student, we become engrossed in the details of our own project and fail to see the potential for impact. I look forward to participating in a collaborative environment and challenging myself to think creatively about a project under the “discover, design, and deploy” framework.

Alex Humberto Valenzuela – Plants are under constant pressure from pests through herbivory and the spread of disease. Insects can severely limit food production and have significant economic consequences. By knowing what makes plants vulnerable to insects, we can work towards improving insect resistance in crops. As a scientist I am interested in translational research and want to be able to be work towards solutions for issues such as food insecurity. Being in a cohort of innovative students from unique backgrounds will expose me to new perspectives and enable my growth as a scientist in ways my PhD program alone could not. Plants 3D will provide the necessary training from both fields needed to succeed as a synthetic biologist. In addition to cross training in science and engineering, Plants 3D will help me build important skills needed in today’s workplace. This includes lessons in entrepreneurship, which is not typically a part of a biologist’s curriculum. As a Latino and a first-generation college student, I am drawn by this program’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusiveness in science.

Alexandra White – As a scientist I have long been fascinated by our ability to manipulate biological systems for our own purposes, whether that be engineering yeast to make insulin or engineering tomatoes to withstand a longer shelf life. Since being an undergraduate, I have been motivated to be a contributing member of society by having some sort of involvement in crop improvement. I find myself utilizing biological techniques to answer questions about plant molecular processes, however I want to be able to translate my knowledge into an applied system like crop improvement. I believe this can be done through the use of synthetic plant biology. Being a part of the Plants3D program will provide a way for me to learn how to apply my molecular research to a real-world application. It is important to me that this program will introduce me to members of other departments as well as scientists in industry that relate basic research into crop improvement. Plants3D will give me the tools to reach across disciplines through a collaborative effort with other members of the program.

Jiadong “Mike” Yang – I have never conducted experiments that utilize mammalian cells to answer questions in plant cells. This interdisciplinary training program can provide me an opportunity to conduct such experiments. Because of this, I am deeply interested in joining the program. Currently, I am in a plant cell biology lab studying auxin-related signaling pathways. I am interested in research to study cell proliferation in cancer cells, gene evolution in genome data bases, axon formation in neurons, and cell growth in plant cells. The key idea is to answer fundamental questions of cellular processes. By studying questions in different fields, I will be able to apply different methods to more accurately answer questions using Bioinformatics analysis to predict similar functioning proteins in TMK1-mediated auxin signaling pathways.

Anqi Zhou – I prefer to call myself an engineer and would like to become an excellent bioengineer through series of comprehensive training in Plants3D program. In my eyes, science is about discovery while engineering is more about design and application. The beauty of being an engineer and doing bioengineering work is all about how those scientific discoveries in the biology-related field can be applied creatively and solve pressing problems in the real world. I have a great interest in applying synthetic biology tools to address practical problems in plant biology, especially in realizing the heterologous biosynthesis of valuable phytochemicals by developing efficient cell factories in industrial microbes, such as the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae.  Additionally, I am also interested in mining and characterizing novel biocatalysts for the improved investigation and understanding of the fundamental aspects of enzyme catalysis and gene regulation in plants.

2021 Cohort

Nicholas Delbert-Robertson – “Innovation lies at the intersection of fields” is a mantra of mine and carries me through all the work that I do. I use synthetic biology in the lab to produce pharmaceutical compounds like cannabinoids in non-conventional yeast hosts using a CRISPR-Cas9 modification and screening system. As a side project, I own a small business where I sell alcohol content detectors that I invented to brewers worldwide. Some of my other hobbies include cooking, making naturally fermented foods, gardening, and working on cars. With this diversity of interests, I am excited to be a part of the Plants3D cohort to learn more about plant biology and entrepreneurship in biotechnology!

Zach Hartley – I am interested in synthetic biology because it provides the ability to translate my biological research skills into real-world products to help people and the environment. I have been involved in the field since joining the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) program as an undergraduate. There, I learned that interdisciplinary cohesion is crucial to the success of any synthetic biology project, regardless of the end goal. The Plants3D program heavily emphasizes this focus on collaboration, a skill which I hope to develop both within the program and throughout my career. In my current research, I study how to improve protein interaction assays in non-model eukaryotic organisms. I would like to use this research to design synthetic sensors with more efficiency and turnaround time than current methods in conventional organisms. I believe that the Plants3D program will give me the skills to aid in this development.

Annalise (Gushue) Kane – “In my career as a plant scientist, I aspire to successfully navigate the bridge between the research lab and the market. I am equal parts motivated to understand the mechanisms underlying the natural world and to answer the challenges of presenting our food system with innovative products. The rising food demands of our global population, combined with the abiotic and biotic stresses inherent to large-scale agriculture, are only compounded by the effects of climate change. The best answers to these multifaceted challenges lie at the intersection of disciplines within life sciences and engineering. Plants3D will facilitate this collaboration toward the development of much needed solutions. I hope to gain insight into the applications of synthetic biology, entrepreneurship, and the logistics of production.”

Stephanie Martinez -Seeing how abiotic and biotic factors affect the growth and development of plants fueled my interest in plant biology from a young age. As I progressed in my education, I learned more about the molecular and cellular responses plants have against these stresses. I wish to understand the fundamental mechanisms behind stress response to potentially generate crops with better tolerance of saline soil. Translational research is needed now, more than ever, to alleviate this growing challenge. The Plants3D program will teach me the skills needed to undertake this research challenge through interdisciplinary collaboration. The entrepreneurship skills that I will learn from the program will increase my knowledge on the transition of scientific discoveries to products available for deployment.

William Samson – Working in agriculture, I saw a broad range of pesticide issues, including different maximum residue levels (MRLs) in every country and a lack of biologically derived crop protection products that are often MRL exempt. I joined Plants3D to work on solving industry needs with bioengineering and an interdisciplinary approach. I’m interested in learning how to translate biology into innovative solutions that advance the industry while also being more sustainable for the planet. Collaboration between science and engineering is critical for improving agriculture and solving the global problem of food security. I am currently researching novel antimicrobial peptides and molecular techniques for improving crop resistance to bacterial pathogens.

Nora Flynn – Through the interdisciplinary training provided by Plants3D, I will learn to partner my research in plastid transcriptomics with efforts to increase crop productivity, particularly in the face of augmented stresses caused by climate change. I am interested in exploring heterogeneity in plastid gene expression, splicing, and RNA editing by developing a method for single-plastid RNA-sequencing. This challenge merges molecular biology and bioinformatics and may be applied to guide more efficient plastid engineering. I hope to develop techniques in science communication to expand my skills in teaching so that I can encourage a new generation of scientific minds.

2022 Cohort

Sabrina Gilmour – is a PhD student researching both model and crop plants for abiotic stress resiliency as predicted climates continue to make growing food more difficult. This is why she is excited to be in the Plants3D NRT program to merge plant sciences with innovative ideas from chemical and other types of engineering. Sabrina looks forward to learning more about the opportunities of applied solutions in the biotechnology sector with the many case studies gone over in the Plants3D course, the product design competition, and the internship with a biotech company.

Claire Whitaker – I decided to pursue a career in science while taking a course on the biology of plants in my first year of college. Since that decision, I have been consciously looking for avenues to add to my knowledge and interest in plants and related systems. As a member of the Plants3D program, I am looking forward to developing cross-discipline collaborations to further my research goals. My research focuses on plant interactions with fungal pathogens, and collaboration in synthetic biology will allow me to bring my fundamental research into a context where it can be directly applied to food systems and economically important plant growth. Additionally, I look forward to working with collaborators on their bioengineering projects and other endeavors to which I would not otherwise be exposed.

Justin Hoover – The history of biotechnology spans thousands of years; however, before we can appeal to the modern definition, we must dissolve barriers amongst disciplines in academia. The Plants 3D program offers a taste of this collaboration. Plants 3D also piqued my interest with potential insight into my current work on Aloe vera, a plant whose production practices are antiquated relative to most food crops. Modernization of Aloe and other crop production methods offers globally optimized land and resource utilization, which is becoming a necessary focus as the human population approaches ten billion. As an engineer, this program’s collaboration and training will be invaluable as we couple new scientific developments to industrial-scale deployments.

Xiaoxuan Teng– As a chemical engineer, I am interested in novel plant natural products (NPs) discovery which would potentially show some medicinal value. I hope to build a kinase sensor in yeast that could be used to monitor the phosphorylation activity of plant complexes reconstituted in yeast, and thus find new plant secondary metabolic pathways. This Plants3D program will help me to strengthen my research skills and act as a motivation for further improvement. And the interdisciplinary training would be really helpful for me to have a broader, more diverse experience outside my own research field.

Janty Woojuh– My scientific interests and previous projects have ranged from synthetic organic chemistry, to plant anatomy and physiology, to synthetic biology and chemical genetics. Plants3D is an exceptional program in encouraging me to branch out and explore interdisciplinary fields of science. For my Ph.D. research, I am working on designing and synthesizing novel abscisic acid hormone receptor agonists and antagonists to control how plants respond and grow in their environments. I want to bolster humanity’s communication and control over the anatomy and physiology of our crops. I strongly believe synthetic biology is the path toward a brighter future. It represents one of the biggest strategies we have for tackling our most dire obstacles. Plants3D has been a great opportunity to join this growing movement in science and technology.

Taryn Dunivant– As a plant biologist my passion to improve crop systems drives my research aims. With increased vulnerability to the abiotic and biotic stressors of a shifting climate, it is imperative that we discover, design, and deploy methodologies and technologies to combat these stressors in crop systems. During my PhD, I aim to uncover molecular mechanisms that can improve the resilience of rice in the face of climate change and concomitant increases in pressure from root-knot nematodes and other pests. I strongly believe the Plants3D program will significantly enhance the translational aspect of my current research and further orient my PhD training to my long-term career goals as a scientist in the agronomic crop industry. Moreover, the program will expose me to the interdisciplinary landscape required to accomplish these goals. I want to be on the cutting-edge of technology to solve agricultural challenges brought on by environmental and societal pressures. I want to be a part of the solution.

Claire Mauss– I believe strongly that every person deserves access to healthy, affordable food that does not harm our environment. Through the use of translational, synthetic plant biology, I hope to engineer crops that will feed a more just and sustainable future. My graduate research project seeks to address the challenges facing the urban controlled environment agriculture (CEA) industry by increasing the variety and value of crops that can be grown in urban CEA via multiplex gene-editing optimization of tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum). In my future career, I hope to continue working to tackle similar food justice issues through the use of cutting-edge synthetic biology tools in the biotechnology industry. Through the support of Plants3D’s interdisciplinary program, I hope to collaborate with fellow passionate peers to develop and enhance my present and future research and ideas.

Eva Ottum– Hi, I’m Eva. I’m a Boston College graduate pursuing a PhD in Chemical and Environmental Engineering in Dr. Wheeldon’s Lab at the University of California Riverside. In my last experience I researched how fungi can better produce renewable biofuels with the Department of Energy. Before this I investigated host-microbiome relationships at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. I am leveraging both experiences to discover new ways to harness microbes, such as fungi and yeast, to address systemic challenges. These small organisms accomplish creative and impressive feats, such as sensing microscopic changes in the environment, producing valuable chemicals, and degrading tough material. Through them, we can deploy innovative tools to solve global issues relating to sustainability and agriculture. I believe we can fulfill this goal by collaborating with scientists in different fields and learning how to translate lab research to industry.

Melissa Gomez- I’ve come to enjoy studying microbes due to their underrated importance to our world and huge impacts. Understanding the natural mechanisms through which some microbes induce plant tolerance to different stressors has the potential to provide solutions to many problems faced by agriculture. My goal is to study this aspect of plant-microbe interactions and learn to engineer improved microbes that can provide a benefit to crops in a myriad of environmental conditions. My motivation in joining the Plants 3D program is to develop the skills needed to implement real-world solutions that lead to progress in sustainable agriculture. In addition, Plants3D will allow me to develop my skills in science communication to non-scientists, through which I will promote education of sustainable and innovative methods we can use to improve our food sources.

Amirsadra Mohensi- Hi, my name is Amir. Although a Ph.D. student in computer science, I believe that Plants3D offers me an excellent opportunity to develop specific modes of communication and collaboration with researchers in biological sciences. These communications and collaboration are necessary for the concerted effort of interdisciplinary researchers to address challenges in the production and conservation of bioresources. As a computer scientist, I develop tools that process and explain the deluge of genomic information extracted from various organisms. Today, we can predict crop yield, resistance to specific physical stressors, tolerance against various pathogens and pests, and other predictive tasks through machine learning. These systems, in turn, pave the way for plant biologists to design crops with increased efficiency and resilience while relying less on laborious and expensive lab experiments. For me, working on Plants3D projects that meld students with diverse backgrounds is a worthwhile and rewarding experience.