This past summer, Caitlin Cridland, a fourth-year Biochemistry Ph.D. student, played an important role in the Virginia Tech Research and Extension Experiential Learning (VT-REEL) program, a 10-week undergraduate research fellowship funded by the USDA and NIFA. The program started in 2017 and is slated to continue through the year 2025. Caitlin began her work with VT-REEL as a Graduate Teaching Scholar during the summer of 2018 and would participate again during the summers of 2019 and 2020.

“In comparison to the work I did in 2018 and 2019, I had a lot more responsibilities and tasks,” Caitlin says as she reflects on her role in the program. “I created weekly professional development workshops, acted as a mentor for the students in the program, and led them through their scientific research project.”

Two people working together
Dr. Hilary Mehl assisting student at the Tidewater AREC for the 2019 VT-REEL Program.

These professional development workshops covered topics like resume building, effective communication via Zoom, how to choose a mentor, and scientific communication. In addition to these workshops, students also had to complete a scientific research project. Students were sent research kits with soil, seeds, pots, and grow lights and they were asked to apply an agronomically-relevant stressor to their plants, take measurements to record the results, and make observations about how the different mutants would respond to their chosen stressor. In addition, students also analyzed published transcriptomics datasets for the big data component of their project.

Caitlin Cridland, Glenda Gillaspy, and Sasha Marine on a zoom call with students
Caitlin Cridland, Dr. Sasha Marine, and Dr. Glenda Gillaspy hosting a zoom call with students participating in the 2020 VT-REEL Program.

Due to COVID-19, the program had to be transitioned online and was held via Zoom. Any meetings, reflections, presentations, and reading materials that students needed were available on Canvas. However, this didn’t keep Caitlin from engaging students and maintaining their excitement.

“At a time when many college students lost crucial opportunities to engage in experiential learning, Caitlin stepped up to the plate to help adapt and carry out our summer VT-REEL project.” Says Dr. Glenda Gillaspy, Department of Biochemistry Head, Professor, and Co-Principle Investigator of the VT-REEL program. “The connection and mentoring she provided to students over the course of this past summer was phenomenal.”

Dr. Sasha Marine, Program Manager of VT-REEL, echoes this statement further. "To put it simply, VT-REEL would not have been possible in summer 2020 without Caitlin's dedication and expertise. She was an accessible and hands-on mentor, who met virtually with each undergraduate fellow each week, often helping them troubleshoot scientific or technical problems. She also fostered a sense of community and science identity amongst the participants.”

While the program is normally held online and offers a hands-on experience, Caitlin says “the team really came together to make this a unique experience for these undergraduates.” Dr. Sasha Marine hosted a weekly scientific workshop series and a journal club, where she taught students how to effectively read scientific papers. The Co-Principle Investigator, Dr. Hunter Frame, an extension and research faculty member at the Tide Water Agricultural Research and Extension Center (AREC), led a project related to agronomy, extension, and applied plant science.

VT-REEL Program
Dr. Hunter Frame talks to students in a corn field at the Tidewater AREC in Suffolk, VA for the 2018 VT-REEL Program.

Faculty from the Translational Plant Science Program gave guest lectures on different plant science-related topics. Senior lab technician, Janet Donahue, led tutorials on how to sow seeds, set up pots, and take proper measurements. Additionally, everyone in the Gillaspy Lab gave presentations to assist students with different components of their projects and became mentors for them as well. 

Caitlin credits the success of VT-REEL to what she learned in the Graduate Teaching Scholar program. She says that the program helped her understand how to teach and communicate science in an effective way. She was also able to define her teaching and mentor style and she feels prepared to continue to engage students and make science fun and interesting.

“I hope that the students enjoyed their experience and learned something from VT-REEL and I hope that I’ve helped students really appreciate plant science, develop their scientific method, and pique their curiosity in science.”

The VT-REEL summer program is open to undergraduate students at Virginia Tech and participating partner institutions. During the summer of 2020, seven students from various universities around Virginia took part in this research fellowship opportunity. Rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors or anyone interested in discovering new solutions for food, fiber, and fuel problems should learn more about this program. Applications open in late December and close in mid-March. For more information, click here.