Oxford students make their way to Illinois’ research fields

This summer, a new exchange programme allowed nine interns from the University of Oxford the opportunity to conduct research alongside highly qualified researchers and experience a different culture at the University of Illinois. 

Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) is an international research project that is engineering plants to photosynthesize more efficiently to increase the yields of staple food crops. All RIPE interns were paired with a supervisor to help with a specific component of the project.

“I’ve become extremely invested in the RIPE project,” said Isla Causon, a RIPE summer intern from Oxford. “The hope is for my data to become useful within the project for our long-term goal: to increase photosynthetic efficiency and boost crop yields.” 

Other interns worked for Water Efficient Sorghum Technologies (WEST), a research project that is developing crops that require less water to improve agricultural productivity, sustainability, and resiliency. 

As the summer is winding down, all of the interns believe that they will take back valuable skills that will help them in their future endeavors. 

“I have been given a great amount of responsibility while working on my project,” said Robert Collison, a WEST summer intern from Oxford. “I’ve been able to gain experience using technologies that I will be able to use throughout my degree and beyond.” 

The interns said that this well-rounded experience gave them the opportunity to travel to another country and meet new people while learning the ropes of research and how to collect data from top-notch researchers.

These interns began with an interest in biology, but now they can see how their efforts can be translated to help create a food secure future. 

This article was written by Monica Kennedy and first published here.

Oxford summer interns


Isla Causon

Isla came to the University of Illinois after hearing Steve Long’s speech on the importance of engineering photosynthesis for global food security. Fascinated by the many routes that were being investigated to increase photosynthetic efficiency, and the vast impact this research could have, Isla joined the RIPE project for the summer. She conducted a research project involving soybeans—studying a process where the plant protects itself by making changes within the leaf to dissipate excess energy.


Robert Collison

After hearing RIPE Director Stephen Long’s speech at Oxford, Robert decided that this internship would help develop his interests and give him the opportunity to learn more about real-world research in plant sciences. Through this internship, Robert validated his desire to pursue a career in plant sciences in the future. He will be able to take back the experience he had in the field and in functional lab. He will also be able to demonstrate his knowledge of how research is carried out in terms of experimental setup and data collection methods.


Stephanie Cullum

Stephanie joined the RIPE project, where she studied the process plants go through when they are trying to protect themselves by making changes within the leaf to dissipate excess energy as heat. She did this by conducting research in different cowpea varieties. Throughout the internship, Stephanie experienced first-hand some of the difficulties with research in a scientific field; for example, this year's weather conditions gave her a greater appreciation for each success in research.


Lulia Floristeanu

Lulia's research focuses on heliotropism in the leaves of soybean and cowpea—which is the movement of the leaf according to the sun's position. This work involved observing the different variations of those plants at different times in a day and noting which ones have the biggest change in angle from morning to midday, when the sun is strongest. Lulia is considering earning a doctorate and thought that this experience would give her an opportunity to engage with and learn from people who have already gone through this experience.


Pietro Hughes

Pietro  arrived at the University of Illinois to start his internship for the RIPE project working under David Drag and Ben Harbaugh, who manage the project's field trials and greenhouse experiments. Pietro’s work involved the preparation of the field sites and greenhouse to help ensure that the RIPE project experiments ran properly. He was inspired to come work at Illinois for the summer because the goals of RIPE to improve global food security resonated with him.


Lucy Manukyan

Lucy joined the project because of the potential that the RIPE research project has to impact the world and provide tangible results in the foreseeable future. Lucy has been working both in the field and in the lab for the RIPE project where she worked with cassava, a staple food crop for 800 million people across the globe. She particularly enjoyed watching the weather patterns to make preparations to protect the crops. She also enjoyed working alongside experienced and knowledgeable researchers.


Emma Raven

Emma came to the WEST project to study sorghum water use efficiency, primarily in the lab of Andrew Leakey. She was inspired to come to Illinois because of the potential benefits of food security research on this campus. She also came to aid in the potential improvement of agriculture through projects that have long-term goals. Emma has gained experience in the field—from using LI-CORS to transplanting plants. She also will take back with her methods of collecting data and processing it.


Aoife Cecilie Tetsche Sweeney

Aoife has always been interested in how agriculture can be improved to enable our growing population to be fed. RIPE Director Stephen Long’s speech about methods in which scientists are now trying to increase yield using mutations in systems, such as helping plants adapt to fluctuating light conditions, sparked an interest that led her to Illinois.


Freya Way

Freya came to work on the TERRA-MEPP project under her supervisor Justin McGrath on a project that compares varieties of sorghum with low and high densities of stomata—the microscopic pores in the leaf that allows water to escape—to see how they change in response to changes in light intensity. Freya was inspired to come to Illinois because of Steve's talk about how to combat global food security, and also because she is interested in how environmental sustainability can be fulfilled through agricultural innovation.

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