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Access to research helps undergraduate student find her fit

Lauren Harmon, a native of Carmel, Indiana, grew up interested in science, and her love for plants drove her to choosing a path to study in the College of Agriculture at Purdue. But she felt like she was missing the hands-on experience that other students had.

"I wanted to learn more about cultivation and gardening, while still getting that fundamental plant science knowledge,” Harmon explains. “I felt like I was missing the mark because I didn't have farm experience."

Early her freshman year, Harmon started looking for research opportunities and laughs when she harmon-greenhouse.jpgremembers her tactic. "I learned a lot about research opportunities through AGR 113, which was the intro to agronomy course. After that course, I dug a little deeper. I turned to Google and looked up various faculty and labs within the College of Agriculture that interested me. Then, I cold emailed them, asking to come and work in their labs."

The plan worked. Harmon was invited to work in Joshua Widhalm’s lab, associate professor of horticulture, in partnership with George Meyer, a Ph.D. student in horticulture and landscape architecture. Harmon says the experience was a significant first step.

"My first experience in research taught me the fundamentals because I was not used to working in a lab or using many lab techniques. I was also able to write my first research grant proposal, which was a huge milestone for me."

The Widhalm Lab provided a strong foundation for her undergraduate research experience and helped her discover a major that aligned with her interests. Harmon chose to major in horticulture with a concentration in plant sciences.

"Once I got into the lab, I knew I wanted to shift my focus a bit. Without that experience, I would not have known that so early. My time spent in the lab truly helped me find my fit.”

With a new major and a growing passion for research, a new opportunity opened up for Harmon during her sophomore year in a paid lab position with Aaron Patton, professor of horticulture and turf Extension specialist, alongside Brandon McNally, research associate in the Patton Lab, focusing on turfgrass and weed science. Harmon continued working in the Widhalm Lab while she stepped into a new research focus, she credits her work and the relationships she developed in the Widhalm lab to expanding her lab experience into a new area of study.

"The Widhalm Lab opened me up to this other opportunity because of their connections with the Patton Lab. My experience in the Patton Lab helped me learn some great greenhouse management skills. I was in the horticulture greenhouses for at least 15 hours a week between both labs. It was another great learning experience, getting hands-on with the plants and understanding more fundamental skills."

After her experience in the two labs, Harmon was recognized for her commitment by receiving the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture's Undergraduate Research Award in Spring 2023. "It was so nice to be acknowledged for my hard work.” she said.

As she prepared for her junior year and finished up her time in the Patton lab, Harmon began searching for another lab experience that might more closely align with her budding interests. After finding the opportunity online and applying, this year, Harmon is working in the Furze Lab with Morgan Furze, assistant professor of botany and plant pathology and forestry and natural resources. Furze enjoys having Harmon in her lab. "Lauren is an outstanding undergraduate researcher, and we are lucky to have her working in the lab with us. She has been analyzing 3D images to map where and to what extent starch reserves in grapevines are depleted in response to drought. Lauren tackled this tedious project without hesitation and has shown to be a dependable and hardworking team player.”

Harmon says she is thoroughly enjoying her time in the Furze Lab and feels she is getting closer to discovering what her own research might be in the future as she is interested in how the environment impacts plants.

"Research opportunities teach students transferrable skills that can be used in any career, and to help students understand the research process and how scientists work together to solve problems,” Furze said. “Lauren is an example of how a student has broadly explored research opportunities, which has allowed her to develop a toolkit that will undoubtedly serve her well beyond Purdue."

Harmon is grateful for the growth and the faculty members that have opened their labs and shared their knowledge to help her grow. Her opportunities have helped her to touch a diverse offering of areas within the college even bridging departments.

Everyone has to start somewhere. I knew going in that I needed to learn and had so much room for growth. I was incredibly nervous jumping into the research world, but I know I wouldn't be where I am today without it. Each lab has met me where I was and not only told me what to do, but explained why and how it's important. I find myself getting closer to figuring out what I want to end up doing, and I would not have been able to do that without the experiences I have had. Whatever your major is, there are many opportunities to explore and learn from across the college. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. You never know what learning experiences are available to you until you try.

- Lauren Harmon, junior majoring in horticulture

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