As many as 30 students were unable to move forward with their first-choice summer research plans because of the pandemic, but they, with integral support from Hampden-Sydney faculty, refused to accept this as the end of the road. “We were well-positioned to transition these students into different opportunities,” Wolyniak says. “I won’t say their experiences this summer were better, because they missed out on the cultural aspects of their initial opportunities, but it was better than not doing anything.”
Several H-SC students were preparing to participate in prestigious Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) summer programs funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). In fact, John Walker ’21 had just been notified of his acceptance to participate in the NSF’s Plant Genomics program at Michigan State University when he then got word that the program had been cancelled due to COVID-related public health concerns.
“When I told Dr. Wolyniak that the Michigan State program was cancelled, he immediately said, ‘We can figure something out,’” John recalls. “Without his guidance, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything like I did this summer.”
Wolyniak, John, and Michigan State Professor Jeff Connor worked together to bring this opportunity to life in spite of the obstacles. “We designed a set of experiments looking at genetic interactions between cellular factors important for plant growth, obtained the mutant lines from a national seed stock at Ohio State University, and did the work in Gilmer,” Wolyniak explains.
During this hybrid project, John examined how certain gene mutations affect various growth markers of the arabidopsis plant. During the six-week experiment, John came to campus twice a week to measure variables such as height, width, and number of seed pods and of flowers—but he completed his analysis and supporting research from his home in Charlotte Court House, aided by weekly Zoom meetings with Wolyniak and Connor to discuss progress and next steps. As a result of his summer research, John has been invited to continue his project for a departmental distinction opportunity over the course of this coming year.