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  • Cornell AgriTech
  • Department of Entomology
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Horticulture Section
  • Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology Section

Ashley Jernigan is a graduate student at Cornell AgriTech working under the direction of Kyle Wickings, associate professor of entomology. When Jernigan isn’t performing research that leads to improved soil health and crop production in New York state, she serves as president of the Student Association of the Geneva Experiment Station (SAGES). Founded in 1994, SAGES builds community and provides opportunities for graduate students on the Geneva campus. Here, Jernigan shares her insight on why SAGES is critical to promoting leadership and professional development as well as an overall sense of community among graduate students at Cornell AgriTech.

What are some of SAGES’ newest initiatives that support graduate student well-being?

A headshot of Ashley Jernigan
Ashley Jernigan. Photo by Allison Usavage

SAGES creates a sense of community by hosting events that are accessible and inclusive of everyone. We hold a wide variety of events and social activities that appeal to individuals with a range of different interests. One of the newest SAGES initiatives that we hope will further support our sense of community is a recently formed Advocacy Committee. The goal of this committee is to facilitate communication between graduate students and Cornell leadership about member concerns ranging from simple potholes on campus roads to major university policy changes. We aim to take the burden off of individuals facing obstacles so that they do not need to try to solve large problems by themselves. I think that by working together to tackle problems that are challenging for members of our community, we are able to actively show that we care about and value the experiences of each member of our community.

How often does SAGES meet and what are the common topics covered in meetings?

SAGES holds general body meetings three times a year in the spring, summer and fall where we cover leadership and committee updates and vote on pertinent topics. In addition to these meetings, we host a variety of social events, professional development workshops and community service opportunities throughout the year.

What are some examples of fun events that SAGES organizes for graduate students at AgriTech?

The social chairs organize a lot of fun events throughout the year. Thirsty Thursdays bring everyone together to catch up over snacks and drinks and are typically held weekly during the academic year. SAGES holds holiday parties throughout the year and social activities at local businesses whenever we can. We also have a lot of fun with our community outreach and engagement activities, especially our annual apple picking and cider pressing we hold to raise money for our scholarship fund for local high school students.

The SAGES annual symposium is another great event we host that gives graduate students the opportunity to share their research with the broader AgriTech community. We bring in a keynote speaker to the symposium, as well, which is always inspiring for our members and a good networking opportunity.


What do the various leadership roles in SAGES look like? How do you serve the graduate student community through your roles?

I like to think of SAGES leadership in three primary areas: the executive board (president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and social chairs), community engagement (outreach chairs, scholarship chair, symposium chair and GPSA representative), and resource management (garden coordinator, student car coordinator, bike program coordinator and reuse program coordinator). The executive board is responsible for the general leadership of SAGES. We are responsible for coordinating the events and opportunities that really bring SAGES members together as a community. The community engagement positions facilitate communication opportunities between SAGES and the broader AgriTech and local communities. The resource management positions serve the graduate student community by managing the various resources that are maintained by SAGES and those provided by AgriTech leadership.

How is SAGES supporting DEI initiatives at AgriTech?

We are really excited about the new SAGES Reuse Program that we are establishing this year. This new program will utilize warehouse space on campus to formally facilitate the transfer of home furnishing between individuals leaving and coming into our community. We hope that this program will promote inclusivity by alleviating the financial and logistic burdens of moving and furnishing a new home for low-income and international students and scholars as they transition into the AgriTech community.

Many of the concerns that the new Advocacy Committee is addressing relate to the DEI initiatives at AgriTech. Some of the major DEI-related barriers that our community is facing include the accessibility of important main campus resources, the institutional fleet car policy and general transportation for international scholars, and broader campus safety and accessibility issues. We are really appreciative of all of the support that AgriTech leadership has given the SAGES community to address these concerns and the opportunities we have to work together with these leaders to support broader DEI initiatives.

How do you think the pandemic has changed the graduate student experience? How has SAGES worked to mitigate issues that have arisen as a result?

Unfortunately, I think that the pandemic has increased feelings of isolation in the graduate student community. Early on in the pandemic, before everyone was burned out on Zoom and the restrictions started lifting, SAGES members organized weekly virtual gatherings where we could share the activities we enjoy with each other. Members taught each other how to cook their favorite lunches, yoga flows and guided journaling practices. Though the meeting restrictions are more flexible now and we are meeting together in person more, SAGES is committed to providing opportunities for students to connect in whatever way they feel comfortable. SAGES is facilitating important social interactions and supporting mental health now more than ever.

Spotlight on SAGES officers

Name: Jess Choi

Research area: Jess is a graduate student in the field of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology. She studies RNA silencing as an effective antiviral defense mechanism utilized by plants to fight against viral infections. Plant viruses counteract this host antiviral defense using the viral suppressors of RNA silencing (VSRs). Jess’ research focuses on identifying VSR(s) of grapevine fanleaf virus (GFLV) and exploring its molecular mechanism(s) of suppression. Jess believes that unraveling this counterdefense mechanism would enhance our understanding of GFLV-host interactions.

Leadership role in SAGES: Secretary

Most fun experience you’ve had at AgriTech as a graduate student: Pressing apple ciders!

Name: Sean Patrick Murphy

Research area: Sean is a technician in plant pathology at Cornell AgriTech. While he wears many hats and is on committees to help improve the campus, his primary focus in the program is managing Sclerotinia sclerotiorum and Cercospora beticola epidemics in snap beans and beets, respectively. Sean is interested in learning and understanding the sources of primary inoculum and how to prevent the spread of the epidemics throughout the growing season. Early detection and forecasting are key to disease management, and Sean works closely with graduate students and growers to better understand these interactions and help the growers make the best decisions, while making it more cost-effective for them to operate their farms.

Leadership role in SAGES: Scholarship chair

Most fun experience you’ve had at AgriTech as a grad student? I am not a graduate student, but as a technician, the most fun experience here at AgriTech has been the AgriTech holiday banquet in years past, where researchers could talk about each other’s research in an informal setting and network with colleagues much better. Great conversations and friendships were made at this event, and it will great to bring this back again after in-person events are more possible following the pandemic.

Name: Victoria (Tori) Hoyle

Research area: Tori is a graduate student working within the field of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology to better understand grapevine red blotch virus (GRBV), a biological system for which little is known with regards to disease ecology. Tori is interested in further understanding the modality of GRBV and Spissistilus festinus in vineyard ecosystems by focusing on the behavioral interactions and movement of GRBV within S. festinus that support virus transmission. Strengthening our knowledge of these relationships will allow us to devise proactive management strategies.

Leadership role: Vice president

Most fun experience you’ve had at AgriTech as a grad student? It is hard to pick just one time or moment from my time at AgriTech, but if I had to choose an experience, it would probably be Coffee Breaks because they represent a collective of good memories, good conversation, a building of collaborations, and getting to know all the great people working here just that much better!

Name: Lidia Komondy

Research focus: Lidia’s work focuses on the vector ecology of onion thrips and iris yellow spot virus in onion producing regions. Through her research, she hopes to elucidate the most economically and ecologically sustainable management decisions in both conventional and organic agricultural programs.

Leadership role: Vice president

Most fun experience you’ve had at AgriTech as a grad student? Organizing Thirsty Thursday get-togethers and hanging out with fellow SAGES members!

Name: Anna Wunsch

Research area: Anna works in the field of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology. She aims to better characterize viral pathogens that infect apple trees and impact fruit production in New York and beyond. She is especially interested in optimizing diagnostic techniques used to detect viruses in apple trees, as well as in determining whether viral pathogens are responsible for the mysterious decline of many young apple trees across the U.S. and Canada.

Leadership role in SAGES: Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA) representative

Most fun experience you’ve had at AgriTech as a grad student? Spending beautiful autumn days harvesting many bushels of apples from my experimental plot with the help of my phenomenal lab mates!

Name: Maddie Flasco

Research area: Maddie’s research focus relates to the transmission biology of grapevine viruses as part of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology. She studies the diversity and epidemiology of grabloviruses in grapevine, specifically grapevine red blotch virus (GRBV) and wild Vitis latent virus (WvLV). Maddie is interested in further understanding the transmission biology of GRBV.

Leadership role in SAGES: Co-chair of the Outreach Committee

Most fun experience you’ve had at AgriTech as a grad student: Hands down, the best part of AgriTech and SAGES is the people. I was first exposed to the community at AgriTech as a summer scholar and was able to continue as a graduate student. One of my favorite memories to date was a Thanksgiving meal SAGES hosted in 2019. This potluck-style meal allowed us all to sit and enjoy each other’s company for an afternoon. It is such a sweet memory of the community aspect of AgriTech and SAGES. I can’t wait to get back to these experiences after the stresses and trials of the pandemic.

Name: Ali Cala

Research area: Ali is a graduate student studying under the direction of Christine Smart, professor of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology. Since beginning her graduate work at Cornell, she has participated in several research projects involving various fungal pathogens of hemp. Powdery mildew, in particular, has emerged as a threat to hemp growers, and she focuses her research on this disease to help develop more effective management strategies.

Leadership role in SAGES: Outreach co-chair

Most fun experience you’ve had at AgriTech as a grad student: The whole process of cider making – from picking the apples, to pressing and bottling the cider at the Food Venture Center – is always a cool experience and a fun way to hang out with other SAGES members. It’s also very rewarding because at the end of that we have some delicious cider and the profits from our sales benefit our scholarship fund.

Name: Morgan Swoboda

Research area: Morgan is interested in how sod producers can use beneficial fungi to protect their sod against root-feeding herbivores. Entomopathogenic fungi (EPF) have the ability to kill insect pests or suppress their feeding, and have a greater potential for providing long-term pest control throughout the production, harvest, and installation of sod under many different soil conditions. Her current research is focused on identifying potential EPF that already inhabit soils of New York state and establishing successful seed treatments of EPF for use in sod production. 

Leadership role in SAGES: Bike coordinator

Most fun experience you’ve had at AgriTech as a grad student: So far, the most fun experience I’ve had was participating in the SAGES symposium. It was so cool to get to learn about everyone’s research!

Female holds potted plant.
Portrait of man smiling
Woman poses in front of brick building.
Portrait of woman by lake
Woman in mask reaches to top of grapevine
Portrait of a woman smiling
Woman examines in hemp in field.
Woman poses with bogs on fingers.

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