Skip to main content

Molecular Diagnostics: from Lab to Viñedo

Students examine grapevines at Cornell's NYS Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY
Students examine grapevines at Cornell's NYS Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY. Photo by University Communications/Chris Kitchen

Ithaca to Santiago:
Course Integrates Science, Language, Culture


“We were in Chile to embrace the culture, language and people just as much as we were there to explore science and diagnostic techniques—this made the experience balanced and fun.”


“This course fused my love of science, innovation and travel. Most science classes do not allow me to utilize my language skills or explore other cultures and countries,” says Madisen Swallow ’18 (Arts and Sciences, biological sciences major). “We were in Chile to embrace the culture, language and people just as much as we were there to explore science and diagnostic techniques—this made the experience balanced and fun.”

Her classmates agree that Molecular Diagnostics: from Lab to Viñedo was a positive learning experience.

“I learned the importance of adapting quickly to new situations and being flexible,” says Jane Wei ’18 (Arts and Sciences). “I had to learn to collaborate with a whole class of students, which is pretty different from most of the lab work I have done individually or in small teams. Communicating with everyone, especially when things didn’t go as planned, was often difficult but crucial.”

Students practice pipetting techniques in lab class to prepare a biological sample for testing
Students practice pipetting techniques in lab class to prepare a biological sample for testing. Photo by University Communications/Chris Kitchen.

The course, which debuted in 2017, promised 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.


“Globalization and the increased movement of people, plants and animals across the planet bring new challenges in combatting the spread of pathogens.”


Jeremy Thompson, research associate and lecturer in the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS) in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was the lead faculty member for the course, which he had developed with support from a 2016 Internationalizing the Cornell Curriculum grant from Global Cornell. Four other instructors helped teach: Mary McKellar, SIPS teaching support specialist; Danilo Moreta, PhD student, Agriculture and Life Sciences/plant breeding and genetics; Marco Straus, research associate in the College of Veterinary Medicine/microbiology and immunology; and Lucy Romero, doctoral student in molecular biology and visiting scholar in the Latin American Studies Program in Cornell’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.

Thompson and students in lab class
Jeremy Thompson points out to students a crucial detail of test results on the screen in the lab. Photo by University Communications/Chris Kitchen.

“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 new 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.”

Using plants as a model organism in lab class at Cornell during fall semester, the 20 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 learned are applicable to both animal and plant health, the focus was on grapevine diseases in Chile’s major wine-production region. As part of their course work, the students visited 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, scientists from the local diagnostics company Rheonix presented the students with insights into cutting-edge methods and the related federal regulations.

Jumpstart Spanish with Alisa Linarejos Jimenez
Jumpstart Spanish with Alisa Linarejos Jimenez. Photo by University Communications/Chris Kitchen.

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 Alisa Linarejos Jimenez, lecturer of Spanish language—and Foreign Languages Across the Curriculum (FLAC) Chilean Spanish for Molecular Diagnostics classes—taught by Spanish instructor Danilo Moreta, PhD student, Agriculture and Life Sciences/plant breeding and genetics—helped prepare the students for immersion in a Spanish-speaking culture. And the Cornell students were paired with students at Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, so they could practice conversational Spanish via social media before the winter break session.

Chilean Spanish FLAC class with Danilo Moreta
Danilo Moreta instructs a Foreign Languages Across the Curriculum class in Chilean Spanish for the students. Photo by University Communications/Chris Kitchen

The Cornell students then took their diagnostic and language skills and applied them during a two-week winter break trip to Chile this past January. 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.


“As someone who wants to study plant biology in graduate school, it was amazing to be able to use my newly acquired language skills to talk to professionals in the field about their work.”


“The lab work was a good way to bring together the theory that was taught in class,” says Christina Mendoza ’19 (Agriculture and Life Sciences, biological sciences major). “It's one thing to learn about a certain technique, and another to be hands-on and actually perform that technique.”

The students’ main host in Chile was Professor Patricio Arce Johnson at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, in the country’s capital Santiago. The Cornellians had the opportunity to meet Chilean students and scientists, listen to presentations on their research and tour the central campus.

Under the guidance of the University of Talca professors Yerko Moreno and Mauricio Lolas, the students collected diseased vines and grape shoots and bunches for virus detection from various locations—including the university’s Research Station at Panguilemo and the InVina vineyards at San Rafael.

Students collect vine samples for testing in the lab.
Students collect vine samples for testing in the lab.

“The Cornell students are smart, very attentive and quite interested in Chilean winemaking and local traditions,” says Lolas, an agronomist and phytopathologist with Talca’s Faculty of Agricultural Sciences. “We discussed the technology of Chilean viticulture and wine production, and they visited our Grape and Wine Technology Center. We also introduced them to Chilean culture and gave them a tour of the university. It was a real pleasure to have them here with us.”


"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.”


In Talca, the students also got the chance to visit the Center for Research and Innovation that belongs to the world-famous winery Concha y Toro.

Concha y Toro winery
Concha y Toro winery in Chile's major grape growing region

“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 biotechnology researcher at the winery’s center. “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.”

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


“This class was huge for me in terms of helping me start my career as a scientist.”


“In this course I learned the breadth of new molecular diagnostic techniques that currently exist and trends in the development of new technologies,” says Paula Fogel ’20 (Arts and Sciences, biological sciences/microbiology major). “This class was huge for me in terms of helping me start my career as a scientist.”

“My biggest academic/personal accomplishment was using my Spanish on the last day of our trip to have a conversation about plant biology with Patricio and Lucy,” says Serena Lotreck ’19 (Arts and Sciences, biological sciences major). “As someone who wants to study plant biology in graduate school, it was amazing to be able to use my newly acquired language skills to talk to professionals in the field about their work.”

Braulio Castillo ’18 (Arts and Sciences, biology and French major) summarized the experience this way: “This class helped me put some of my opinions of the world in perspective.”

The class on the grounds at Concha y Toro in Chile's Maipo Valley
The class on the grounds at Concha y Toro in Chile's Maule Valley

After four busy days of lab work, analyzing 57 samples, the students had a chance to relax with a tour to the uniquely charming coastal cities of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar.

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

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