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