Backus ’10 Studies Plant Pathology – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Backus ’10 Studies Plant Pathology

Spores galore!  Melissa Backus ’10 is staying busy this summer, researching and analyzing plant pathogens-bacteria and fungi-that are destroying local crops.

A double major in classics and Ancient Greek and a double minor in biology and health care professions, Backus is juggling several different projects at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES), a Geneva division of Cornell University.

Backus has been researching the Phytophthora Blight, which is caused by a water mold, and its effects on pumpkins, as well as the effects of botrytis, a fungus that has been ruining onion crops.

“Farmers bring in infected samples, and we swab them in the lab to see what the pathogens will grow on,” says Backus.  “I’ve seen a lot of what they do at the Ag Station, the research, the interactions with farmers-it’s been cool.”

Backus’ research is supported through the Brenda and David Rickey Foundation, which recently approved a three year, $45,000 grant to support students in the Summer Science Research Program who are undertaking research projects at the NYSAES. 

Melissa Backus

The scholarship has allowed Backus to work with Christine Smart, whose research is focused on the effects of Phytophthora on pumpkins and other vegetable crops in New York State.  They plant pumpkin, zucchini, and squash crops in the fields at the Ag Station and infect them to see how they hold up against the pathogens; in the lab, they observe the infected cultures and analyze.

“Here we’re working toward an eventual goal. It’s all in little steps, but it’s more long-term than classroom labs. You have to keep the ultimate focus in mind,” she says.   “I’m working with diseases, using research techniques that will definitely come in handy down the road,” she says.

In addition to her intensive studies, Backus also serves on campus as a member of the healthcare professions club and is a tour guide, a hosting coordinator, resident advisor and a member of the William Smith Judicial Board. Currently, she is taking coursework to become an HWS EMT. After graduation, she plans to pursue a doctorate in pharmacy.