Jeffrey Yen ’18

Yen developed research skills to create new plants.

When did you first get interested in plants?

I got the bug in middle school in Taiwan. I picked up a publication from a local research institute that featured dozens of new cultivars of my favorite tropical fruits: mangos, lychee, and wax jambu. The idea of being able to develop new and better varieties using scientific research was the coolest thing to me.  From that day on, I've always had a vision of becoming a plant breeder.

How did you first start studying plants?

I returned to California to finish high school and continue my education at a local community college. I had an inspirational biology teacher whose lectures gave me goosebumps and I knew I wanted to pursue a career in something biology-related. The next year I worked in a plant molecular lab and then was a teaching assistant for the biology course and loved every bit of it.

But there was no plant science major at the community college.  It was all premed and engineering.  So I applied to Cornell where I knew I would find a whole plant science community with other students and professors with common interests. I transferred in as a junior.

Tell us more about that plant science community.

Well first there’s the diversity of interests in the students in the Plant Sciences major.  Everybody has their own plant passions. Some of us wish to understand how plants grow under various environments while others wish to develop methods to combat against infectious plant diseases. Others discover novel species and uncover the evolutionary history of diverse plants. But these fields are all complimentary, and we all learn from each other. Being part of a cohort of plant science majors with diverse interests is very inspiring.

Then there are the professors.  They also have very diverse expertise and research interests, from the very basic to very applied. It’s easy to find mentors who share your interests. Additionally, all faculty here are invested in your future. They will kindly find time from their busy schedules to talk and discuss any academic or non-academic concerns we might have.

What were your primary interests?

My interests are in plant genetics and understanding how traits manifest themselves through the genetic code. I am especially interested in how developmental processes are genetically controlled and applying this knowledge to breed and improve new crops.

I chose to study these processes in plants instead of other organisms because of my interest in breeding and my love for plants. I have been fascinated by the wide variety of shapes and forms of plants and watching them grow and mature simply makes me happy. I also want my work to help farmers produce more and better crops to ultimately sustain a growing human population.

The requirements of the Plant Sciences major are broad and exposed me to different areas of study. My favorite class in the curriculum was plant taxonomy and systematics. I didn’t know I was interested in that until I took the course.

Were you able to get hands-on research experience?

Absolutely.  I knew with my interest in developing new cultivars I’d need a lot of lab experience.  In California, I had to drive 40 minutes to the nearest plant research lab.  At Cornell, there are tons of opportunities right on campus. So I was able to master a wide range of lab techniques.

After my junior year, I was part of the Summer Research Scholars Program at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, N.Y. I worked in Kenong Xu’s lab there researching the genetics that control apple tree architecture, which has direct application in developing more productive and easier-to-grow cultivars.

I also worked in Michael Scanlon’s lab to understand the development of leaves. Using microscopy and gene expression analysis, we were working to better understand genes that underlie leaf angle in grasses – a trait that influences cropping density and yield.

Did you participate in any extracurricular activities?

I joined the table tennis club.  There’s a club for everything at Cornell. Clubs are a good way to meet people outside plant sciences and to continue/start a new hobby.

What are your plans for the future?

I'll be attending the University of California-Davis for a Ph.D. program in Genetics and Genomics. Graduate education is necessary for those who want to do their own research, but there are opportunities for work right after graduation as well.

Do you have any advice for new Plant Sciences majors?

There are so many opportunities to explore different ideas at Cornell. So don’t be afraid to take a course out of your comfort zone. If you see a course that looks interesting but you’re not sure, give it a try.