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Wrestling and plant genetics a perfect pair for student

Jennifer Fishburn, John Cavaletto and Ethan Smiley

Ethan Smiley always looked forward to his science classes, but with a police officer for a father, a nurse for a mother and an older brother in law school, a career in agriculture never crossed his mind. If not for Purdue, Ethan Smiley says he never would have considered a career in plant sciences.

“I was very fortunate to have people who helped me discover what exactly I like about biology,” said Smiley, now a sophomore at Purdue studying botany and plant pathology.

“At Beech Grove High School, we had the opportunity to go to a Purdue camp called the Summer Biology Experience.”

The ten-day, hands-on program gave high school students their first opportunity to gain biological research experience.

“I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to do more research the following year,” Smiley recalled.  Between high school wrestling camps at Purdue and weekend trips organized by his biology teacher, Smiley seized every opportunity to visit campus.

There, he was introduced to John Cavaletto, teaching laboratories coordinator in botany and plant pathology. “I did a science fair project with Cavaletto and he continued to mentor me from there,” said Smiley.

John Cavaletto
John Cavaletto, photo by Tom Campbell

Now at Purdue, Smiley frequently crosses paths with Cavaletto.

“There are few educators that get the opportunity to work with students from their high school years all the way through their undergraduate studies,” said Cavaletto. “It is extremely rewarding to be involved with them during this time of transformational growth as students and individuals.”

Being a member of Purdue’s wrestling team presents its own demands, but Smiley was still able to earn recognition as the Outstanding Freshman of the Year in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology.


“The wrestling helps keep me in check and on schedule,” said Smiley. “I have seen students who don’t have other commitments, which can give them too much freedom. Wrestling provides me with that balance and gives me something to work for. I don’t want to let my teammates down.”

As part of the wrestling team, Smiley stayed on campus over the summer. “It actually made the summer a good opportunity to work in a lab and further explore my interest in plant science.”

“I took a very interesting course last spring, Principles of Plant Biology, taught by Damon Lisch. I asked him if I could help in his lab over the summer doing genotyping work.”

“I got to participate in all aspects of what it means to be a plant geneticist,” said Smiley. “Dr. Lisch's lab works with corn, studying specific mutations called transposons. Transposons are nicknamed the ‘jumping genes’ because they can relocate themselves from one part of a gene to another gene.”

Damon Lisch, photo by Tom Campbell

“For the project, we wanted to see if the transposon that caused spots in kernels of corn was linked to a different phenotype (physical characteristic) that caused spots in the leaves of the plant.”

“After college, I would like to continue doing plant science research, but I’m still exploring potential options,” Smiley said. “That is why Purdue is such a great place to be. You can branch out, collaborate and go down a lot of different avenues, even just within the plant science department.”

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