Andrea Brennan: Challenges, Opportunities, Life Lessons

 Making the most of it: Challenges, Opportunities and Life Lessons

College is full of opportunities and challenges and Andrea Brennan, a senior and Public Horticulture major, has experienced both to the fullest. Health issues are nothing new to Brennan, who has had a number of surgeries due to sinus, ear, and knee problems, but nothing could have prepared her for the phone call she received on that gray, rainy Friday before fall break in 2009—she had a brain tumor. Fortunately, the tumor was benign, but because it was entwined with her audio nerve, its removal caused Brennan to become deaf in one ear. Also, as a result of the surgery, Brennan was fully paralyzed on the left side of her face, unable to produce tears or close her left eye. After time and physical therapy she has regained, for the most part, full functionality. Although her deafness and dry eye are permanent, Brennan says that the difficulties she has undergone have made her “appreciate…and look at things more objectively.” Brennan has not let her health concerns slow her down and has taken full advantage of the amazing opportunities available to her at Purdue. She has studied abroad, presented at conferences, participated in projects, interned, volunteered, and won numerous awards and scholarships. My experience at Purdue has been “phenomenal,” Brennan extols, “one opportunity leads to all these others.” 
With both parents employed at Purdue, the university seemed a likely choice. “I’ve been cultivated at Purdue,” Brennan states quietly, but says it really wasn’t until she decided to major in horticulture that her decision was truly made. Brennan’s love of horticulture actually developed during a time of mourning. Her grandfather had passed away, and several plants were given to the family. To commemorate his memory, Brennan’s mother told her to choose one to care for; she picked a Ficus and was later amazed at the gratification she felt nurturing the tree, “it’s growing and it’s because of me,” Brennan remembers thinking.
When she first arrived on campus, Brennan says she was a “blank slate.” She had no preconceived notions, so when Professor Paul Siciliano approached her about delving into a little known aspect of one of the most memorable monarchs in French history, King Louis XIV, Brennan was open to the opportunity. She presented “More Than Just Green Architecture: An Investigation Into the Flowering of the Gardens of Louis XIV” in poster form at the 2010 annual American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) conference held in Palm Desert, California. Because her topic was so different from what is typically presented at ASHS conventions, Brennan was unsure of how well it would be received. Combining science and history paid off, and her subject’s uniqueness won her third place in the undergraduate poster competition. “I sold it because I was excited about it, and I wanted to talk to people about it,” Brennan says. Her presentation was so successful that she stayed over the allotted hour by her poster to accommodate the numerous people waiting to speak with her. The conference was “not the end of Louis,” Brennan enthuses. The title was reworded and the paper edited and presented at the 2012 European Council of Landscape Architecture Schools (ECLAS) in Warsaw, Poland. “The conference was amazing,” Brennan exclaims, “I was blown away, I love Poland…I loved learning about the culture…It was one of the best experiences of my life!”
Brennan has also had success with the scientific side of horticulture. Her project, “A pharmacological impact study of brassinosteroid biosynthesis inhibitors in sorghum (Sorghum bicolor),” won first place in the undergraduate poster competition at the 2011 Midwest meeting of the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB).  She worked closely with Dr. Burkhard Schulz to see what exactly the brassinosteroids (a group of plant hormones) controlled in Sorghum bicolor (a relative of corn). The remarkable thing about sorghum is its ability to flourish in heavy drought conditions and infertile soil. This natural tendency makes it a prime candidate for biofuels. Brennan and Dr. Schulz discovered that the brassinosteroids regulate a big part of the plants growth. The hope in the future is to find and overexpress the gene controlling brassinosteroid biosynthesis so it will go crazy and the sorghum will become even bigger. Enlarging the sorghum will enable a greater amount of plant matter to be available for cellulosic biofuels. This type of biofuel uses the inedible parts of a plant, leaving the edible areas to be used for food, whereas a typical biofuel will use all of a plant’s food production. “I don’t like the present biofuels, such as grain ethanol, because I don’t like the fact that we’re sacrificing food for fuel. I don’t think that’s a fair tradeoff,” Brennan clarifies. She has also shared her research in several additional conferences.
In the summer of 2011, Brennan interned for the Ruth Mott Foundation at Applewood Estates in Flint, Michigan. Flint was an interesting choice because it topped the list as being the most violent city to live. “I loved it though,” Brennan remarks, “because if any place needs a public garden, some place to educate [the community] about plants and just growing things…outside of the industrial…that would be the place.” Many individuals she encountered did not know what a tomato plant looked like and had never been inside a greenhouse. The idea of increasing public knowledge and teaching people how to grow gardens appeals to Brennan; she loves the possibility of gardening offering residents an alternative to other less productive pastimes and is hopeful that one day it will help reduce crime in the area.
Volunteer work has been another important aspect to Brennan’s experience at Purdue; she served with the Boiler Volunteer Network Student Leadership Team (BVN-SLT) for two years. During that time, she helped guide groups to community events supporting issues such as hunger and area cleanup. Furthermore, Brennan led an invasive honeysuckle removal effort at Horticulture Park with BVN-SLT and Purdue’s Horticulture Society (Hort. Club) last fall. She is also the president of Caring Paws of Greater Lafayette, a local pet therapy program. Brennan, along with her goofy dog Zephyrus, a flat-coated retriever, visit various places including hospitals, nursing homes, and special education classrooms—she enjoys providing a bright spot in someone’s day. For added entertainment, Brennan has taught Zephyrus not only how to bowl, but to pick up all the pins and put them back in their bucket when done.
In addition, Brennan is deeply involved with the Purdue Arboretum on campus. She was there at its infant stage and has had the opportunity to participate and contribute to its growth. The Arboretum began in late 2008 with the idea of using the entire campus as a resource for education and research for public outreach. The Arboretum has taken on the monumental task of creating an exhaustive database of each tree and shrub on campus. Inventory has been taken, and Brennan is currently helping catalog every single feature of the trees and shrubs. The information will be complete with photographs and made available to the public. We want to be the “ultimate resource,” Brennan says, “on woody plants in the Midwest area.”
Although she is not currently working on any projects, Brennan remains busy as a full-time student, the TA for Hort. 217, and her work with the Purdue Arboretum. She also has two extension bulletins that will be published. Even though much of Brennan’s college career has been encompassed with health complications, she has not let them define her. Instead, she has embraced the unique perspective she now has on life and the fact that her experiences have made her all the “wiser” and “stronger.” She has pursued every avenue that Purdue offered her and has not only done well, but excelled. The multiple conferences she’s attended have been “a great experience for networking and meeting people and learning about other horticultural facts,” Brennan emphasizes. She is looking forward to graduation in December and is hoping to be accepted into either Cornell University or the Longwood Graduate program, a Public Horticulture master’s program, which only accepts ten students a year. The program is through the University of Delaware and works in conjunction with Longwood Gardens.  Brennan says she really has no expectations. All she really knows is that she has “to be working for a public garden.” The location doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a garden.
Written by Erin Lane

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