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Tree Conservation and Biotechnology

Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to complete an internship with the Forest Biotechnology Group at NC State. After taking the special topics course ES 495: Biotechnology, Conservation and Society taught by Dr. Jack P. Wang and Dr. Adam Kokotovich, I really wanted to dive deeper into the field of biotechnology. The course opened my eyes to the idea of biotech as a tool for protecting threatened tree species. One area that specifically caught my attention was the issue of hemlock trees in the eastern part of the U.S. being destroyed by the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid. I didn’t know that genetic engineering like CRISPR could be used as a method for species conservation, and that was something that interested me.

I spent my time in the Forest Biotech Group lab learning from Ph.D. student Bárbara Machado Marques and working on the genetic improvement of hemlock trees. The opportunity to work in a laboratory and learn directly from a graduate student was such a valuable experience for me. I feel like I’ve gained so much confidence in my skills as a researcher and a scientist because of the time I’ve spent working in the lab.

One of my main responsibilities for my internship was to maintain the hemlock tree cell cultures. The cell cultures are small, fluffy white clusters that sit in sealed petri dishes and are constantly kept in an incubator. They sit in a gelatin-like growth media that contains all the nutrients the cultures need to grow. After a couple of weeks, I would check the cultures for contamination and transfer them to new growth media. It was fascinating to see how much they grew over time, especially the really healthy cultures that were thriving.

I also learned how to make the growth media for the hemlock cultures. We did some experiments to see whether solid or liquid media worked better for growth, and we measured the cultures to see which ones grew the best over time. The process of making growth media is long, and I was very intimidated by it at first. With some practice, I’ve now gotten very comfortable with it and actually find it relaxing. As I got more confident in the lab, I even got to assist with more advanced procedures like gel electrophoresis and PCR experiments.

This internship was my first experience working in a laboratory, and I was so scared that I wouldn’t be good at it. My time at the Forest Biotech Group has taught me not to disqualify myself from opportunities, but to be open to trying new things and learning new skills, even if it’s intimidating at first. There were times when my internship had to be paused because of COVID-19, but I am very glad that I was able to complete it. I am so thankful for the Terry Student Assistance and Enrichment Fund for funding my internship and allowing me to participate in such a valuable experience.