Siwen Deng, a senior in plant sciences at Purdue University, looks through a microscope in the Whistler Agricultural Research Building. Siwen graduated recently and is headed to the University of California in Berkley to study plant and microbiology.
Siwen Deng, a senior in plant sciences at Purdue University, looks through a microscope in the Whistler Agricultural Research Building. Siwen graduated recently and is headed to the University of California in Berkley to study plant and microbiology.
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — It was on a small rice farm in northeast China that a young girl discovered her desire to study plant science.

Siwen Deng, a senior at Purdue University, remembers a time when many families lost their crop, their main income, to a severe drought. Seeing the loss firsthand, Siwen decided that when she grew up, she was going to be a plant doctor.

“My hometown is an agricultural town,” she said. “We grow a lot of rice. I remember, when I was 7 or 8 years old, there was a really dry year. We all had a small piece of land. Most of the families had really low yields.

“At that time, I wanted to be a plant doctor. I want to cure the plants. In high school, I learned biology and gene modification. Now my dream is to create a super plant.”

Siwen’s journey to create a drought-resistant plant started at China Agricultural University, a world-renowned agricultural college.

Her sophomore year, she visited Purdue as part of a band performance. She fell in love with campus and decided to transfer as soon as possible.

“I play erhu, a traditional Chinese instrument,” Siwen explained. “I think music gives me inspiration. Sometimes I can’t come up with an idea or design an experiment. For me, listening to a piece of music, I will calm down.”

Research Opportunity

During her first class at Purdue, professor Mike Mickelbart mentioned an opportunity to do lab research as an undergraduate.

Siwen took full advantage of the opportunity and immediately asked how she could get involved.

“I not only wanted to get the experience of being an undergraduate student, I wanted to have my own project,” she said. “So I kind of work as a graduate student and generate hypothesis, design experiments and test them.

“He asked me, ‘What do you want from this lab?’ I said, ‘Not just the experience, at the end I want to publish a paper. I really want to get a whole story from this lab, I want to get involved with every part.’”

Siwen is researching water use in plants. This fall, she will travel to the University of California in Berkley to study plant science and microbiology.

She credits her success to her hours of work in Mickelbart’s lab in the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture.

The department offers concentrations for students interested in studying everything from landscape design to basic plant biology.

Many students go on to work in orchards, arboretums, greenhouses, landscape companies and more. Some start their own businesses, and others go to graduate school to continue their research.

While at Purdue, there are many resources for students.

“We have high-quality greenhouse facilities,” said Robert Joly, department head. “They support our research, our teaching and our Extension roles — these three important missions that we have.

“Our students, staff and faculty do research in those structures, where we can learn how plants respond to their environments and how they might be affected by temperature, light or other factors.”

Discoveries

Important research is being conducted by horticulture faculty and students.

Dr. Roberto Lopez is known nationally for studying classic floricultural crops, such as poinsettias, in a way that reduces energy expenditure.

“Horticultural operations have historically been energy and chemical intensive,” Joly said. “So Roberto is making a major shift in the way we grow these plants, so they become less intensive.

“He’s finding that you can grow crops in greenhouses at three to five degrees lower and still get the quality that you need. It’s a huge energy savings, and therefore it makes those growers more competitive. It makes Indiana growers more competitive.”

It’s an example of an Extension program that has an impact on real-world industry, he said.

Technology is making data gathering more precise and efficient.

Professors Cary Mithcell, Lopez and Selena Gomez are all doing research regarding how LED lights in greenhouses can grow plants while conserving energy.

“Technology is changing tremendously,” Mickelbart said. “For example, there’s more technology to monitor water use of plants. We’ve gone from basically estimating to having a lot more data to help us make decisions. That’s one of many examples.”

To learn more about the department, visit www.ag.purdue.edu/hla.