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Melissa Brechner
2005-2006 CSIP Fellow

Research Interest
Agricultural & Biological Engineering

With my degrees in biological and horticultural engineering, as well as my extensive background in entomology and plant production, I consider myself a jack of all trades. My engineering background contains all the physics and chemistry one would expect of such a degree. In addition, I specialize in controlled environment agriculture (greenhouses) and have been involved with a diversity of projects that attempt to manipulate different aspects of the plant’s environment in order to optimize plant growth or otherwise control nature. My masters’ work involved how insects called aphids react to different light and temperature regimes with regard to their perception (and reaction to – wings or no wings!) what they perceived as the photoperiod. My current work involves trying to manipulate the amount of valuable secondary metabolites produced by medicinal plants by changing the environment they grow in. The specific plants I am working with are: St. John’s Wort, Japanese Knotweed and American Mayapple. I would love to introduce students to my detective approach to experimentation. Like any good investigator, I believe the first to finding the answer is to figure out what we know - and what we don’t know about a problem. Then, with a few well-designed experiments, we can increase the amount we know about a particular puzzle.

The ideal growing conditions for specific medicinal plants that I am working with now are a bit of a mystery. Generally, they grow and are harvested in the wild or in fields under the stars. Growing them under the glass or plastic of a greenhouse (or even on a windowsill) presents many unknowns starting with what type of soil, how much light, the best temperature and the ideal set of nutrients will help them to grow to their fullest potential. Students can easily design and test many of these variables to learn the process of science – and the results of their investigation will be put to use in my attempts to grow these plants in a greenhouse and manipulate metabolite content. I would like students to learn the process of experimental design and, perhaps more importantly, experimental redesign in a system that is more complex than it might seem at first.

Recently I have been working with one of the Introductory Biology courses at Cornell. I also have experience as a certified Mad Scientist. Ask me about simple and fun basic chemistry and physics experiments!




Copyright 2006 CSIP, Cornell University