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Molecular Diagnostics: Ithaca and Santiago

2019 class reunion in Ithaca
A spring reunion at Cornell, in partnership with the Latin American Studies Program in Cornell's Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, brings Chilean and Ithacan students together with faculty leads Jeremy Thompson (back row, left) and Patricio Arce (back row, center).

Course Integrates Science, Language, Culture

“The course exceeded my expectations—both in the lab techniques that we used and mastered, and in the opportunities for cultural and social exploration in Chile,” says Agustín Letelier (College of Arts and Sciences/biology major, Class of 2020), one of 15 participants in the 2018–2019 course, Molecular Diagnostics: from Lab to Viñedo.

His classmates agree that the course, in Ithaca and Santiago, was a positive learning experience.

“I learned a ton about molecular diagnostics, especially considering all I really understood coming into the class was PCR!” says Emma Wood (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences/animal science major, Class of 2020). “I also learned how to work with minimal supervision and guidance, which really pushed me to work with the other students in the class … Group work has never been my strongest skill—but it was a great opportunity to improve my ability to compromise and bounce ideas off my peers.”

“This class allowed us to apply the diagnostic techniques we learned in the field. I deepened my knowledge of molecular diagnostics by performing the experiments myself and not simply reading about them in a textbook, and for that I am grateful,” says Aditi Mohapatra (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences/biology and society major, Class of 2020). “I have never traveled outside of the United States without my family—exploring Santiago on my own gave me a sense of independence I haven’t had before. This trip was definitely one of the highlights of my time at Cornell, and I am truly grateful for the experience.”

“This trip helped me develop confidence and communication skills. Having to interact with many people across different situations was like a crash course in interpersonal skills,” says Sriya Sunil (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences/food science major, Class of 2019). “I picked up an immense amount of knowledge …. I am extremely happy about the increase in my understanding of lab techniques.”

coastal town
View across the city of Valparaiso to the Pacific Ocean

The course, which debuted in 2017, promises undergraduate and graduate students the unique opportunity to combine hands-on laboratory training and theory with an overseas experience that integrates both language and cultural components.

Jeremy Thompson, senior research associate in the School of Integrative Plant Science in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is lead faculty for the course, which he had developed with support from an Internationalizing the Cornell Curriculum grant from the Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs. Four other instructors help teach: Mary McKellar, SIPS teaching support specialist; Danilo Moreta, PhD student, Agriculture and Life Sciences/plant breeding and genetics; and two undergraduate TAs whole took the course last year: Paula Fogel and Christina Mendoza.

“Globalization and the increased movement of people, plants, and animals across the planet bring new challenges in combatting the spread of pathogens,” says Thompson. “This course offers a theoretical and practical introduction to the main molecular diagnostic methods employed by researchers today for the control and monitoring of disease spread.”

Street mural in Valparaiso
Street mural in Valparaiso

Using plants as a model organism in lab class at Cornell during fall semester, the students applied multiple established and novel molecular techniques to determine the cause of disease manifested as a range of symptoms. Although the methodologies the students learn are applicable to both animal and plant health, the focus is on grapevine diseases in Chile’s major wine-production region.

As part of their course work in Ithaca, the students visit both the Animal Health Diagnostic Lab at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and the NYS Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York, which is run by Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. During that visit this year, Gwendolyn Spizz from the local diagnostics company Rheonix presented the students with insights into cutting-edge diagnostic methods.

During fall semester on the Ithaca campus, the students also began language study so they would be prepared to speak conversationally and technically with students, faculty, and collaborators in Chile.

Jumpstart classes—taught by Esperanza Godoy Luque, lecturer of Spanish language—and Foreign Languages Across the Curriculum/Chilean Spanish for Molecular Diagnostics classes—taught by Spanish instructor Danilo Moreta, PhD student, Agriculture and Life Sciences/plant breeding and genetics—help prepare the students for immersion in a Spanish-speaking culture.

The Cornell students then took their diagnostic and language skills and applied them during a two-week winter break trip to Chile. On the ground in Chile, they took samples from vineyards and analyzed them in a field laboratory. They conversed in Spanish and English with Chilean faculty, host students, and grape growers.

“In this course you get to make your own decisions based on different diagnostic results, whether it is about samples or testing materials,” says Liz Larsen (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences/biological sciences major, Class of 2020). “Even when it comes to writing dissertations and reports, most of it is designed by students themselves. This course is what I would really call a learning experience!”

“Learning the in-depth reasoning behind why technologies work helps me plan out an experimental approach with much more confidence,” says Nathaniel Garry (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences/biological sciences major, Class of 2021). “Likewise, interpreting an experiment’s results becomes much easier once you know how the technology works.”

The students’ main host and Thompson's main collaborator in Chile is Patricio Arce Johnson, professor biological sciences at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, in the country’s capital Santiago. “For PUC, internationalization with Cornell is of immense interest both for the exchange of students and for the collaborative research between universities," he says. "Grapevine is extremely important for Chile’s economy, and the continued investigation into improving productivity is essential. This class gives students an insight into grapevine pathology, production, and general molecular biological techniques.”

winery visit
Class visit to vineyards in Casablanca

“In the short lab time we had—just five days, including half a day with no power!—we were able to confirm by two independent methods the presence of virus infection in two vineyards,” says Thompson. “More work will be needed to establish the extent and likely impact of these perennial and incurable diseases on productivity.”

The Cornellians had the opportunity to meet PUC students and scientists, listen to presentations on their research, and tour the central campus.

In Talca, the students visited the Center for Research and Innovation at the world-famous winery Concha y Toro. During a tour of the facility’s molecular biology laboratory, enological chemical laboratory, and experimental wine cellar, the students asked questions of the CRI team, who explained the projects under development.

Labwork in Curacavi
Labwork in Curacavi

“The students got to see an excellently equipped laboratory that applies essential techniques for improvements in grapevine quality and production, all within the scope of a large international company,” says Thompson. During the class visit, Thompson gave a seminar on the challenges of molecular diagnosis in vines to the CRI team, some of their collaborators, and industry stakeholders.             

“All the students have a high interest and are very curious and active. They show a robust technical base for the aims of the course,” says Felipe Gainza Cortés, a molecular biology researcher at CRI. “We think that experiences like this—in which mixing both the theoretical aspect and the possibility to learn how to innovate and use applied science in industry—have a high impact on the students’ perspectives of their future as scientists.”

The students and faculty also visited several additional vineyards for tours and sampling: Casas del Bosque in the Casablanca Valley, and Korta in Curicó.

Students credit the course both for improving their language skills and motivating their individual interests in science.

“The opportunity to immerse myself in a foreign culture as well as assist my classmates with navigating a Spanish-speaking city fostered my personal growth and also reaffirmed my desire to work in global health,” says Chloe Carpenter (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences/biology major, Class of 2020). “I’m incredibly grateful for the relationships as well as professional connections made in such a short period of time.”

“The lab work helped solidify the concepts we learned in class,” says Phillip Schofield (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences/biological sciences major, Class of 2021). “For example, all that you can understand from academic articles about PCR and ELISA are little cartoon illustrations of the mechanisms by which the techniques work. Actually conducting the techniques allowed me to see the magic of the science work—seeing the developed gels or the color change in the ELISA is very cool and makes the scientific theory feel real.”

“I knew I wouldn’t have the chance to study abroad for a full semester during my time at Cornell, so I was really excited to be able to travel to Chile during winter break,” says Clare Fraser (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences/nutritional sciences major, Class of 2020). “The course included many visits with organizations that use diagnostic techniques, and I was able to secure a fantastic summer internship through one of the companies that visited our class.”

city squareAfter their busy days of lab work, analyzing numerous samples, the students had some opportunities to relax and learn more about Chile.

They took a walking tour to experience the charm of the coastal city of Valparaíso, where they viewed incredible street murals and later rode one of the city’s seven funiculars down to the port area and the Monument to the Heroes of Iquique. They visited several museums, including the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago. And they spent a Saturday afternoon in the beach town of Reñaca, after having enjoyed lunch overlooking the Pacific coast.

On their return to winter in Ithaca, the students wrapped up their experience with a scientific report on their findings.

“Previously I didn’t appreciate how valuable it would be to list on my resume the techniques that we learned, and how valuable the fieldwork component would turn out to be,” says Natalie Butkevich (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences/biology major, Class of 2020). “Having these experiences really helped me in an interview last week.”

Future plans, says Thompson, are for the course to expand to provide a range of practical options for aspiring molecular biological researchers.