Planting the Seed: How a summer internship inspired one student’s career plans

You know what’s inspiring? Blackberries. At least, University of Florida student Jessica Velte thinks they are.

Jessica Velte, a plant science major and rising junior, spent the summer of 2022 working as an intern for professor Zhanao Deng at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center. Her team was studying plant breeding and genetics in a variety of ornamental and food crops including pomegranates, blackberries, hops, lantana, and caladium.

During her six-week internship, Velte participated in two events — the inaugural Blackberry Growing Conference and the Hops Field Day — that gave her a window into the business side of agriculture. There, she was excited by what she saw: “a community with a common goal to improve and strengthen the plants that we see and eat.”

In Deng’s lab, Velte worked with a team of graduate students on projects that integrated molecular biology, horticultural physiology, pathology, and more. Under their guidance, Velte learned to do agrobacterium transformations, create tissue cultures, use a flow cytometer, and inoculate fruit with pathogens to test for disease resistance.

“It has been incredibly inspiring to transition from reading about these revolutionary technologies and practices to participating in them. They changed from being future career goals to skills that I am comfortable with.”

Velte was well-prepared for the challenges of the internship. A hard-working high school student buoyed by the support of her family, she focused on fulfilling her commitments and prioritizing her time. “My mom is a role model for hard work, my sister for kindness, and my dad for pushing me to pursue my dreams,” she says.

By consistently demonstrating these values, Velte caught the attention of professor Wagner Vendrame, with whom she was working at the UF micropropagation lab. Vendrame encouraged her to apply for the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences internship program, which matched her with Deng. The competitive internships usually go to juniors and seniors, so securing a spot earlier in her education was a big win for Velte. “UF does a wonderful job of making sure that everyone gets a fair chance to participate,” she says, “Ask your peers, instructors, advisors, or the internet for opportunities and go for it! You never know what might happen.”

Although high school prepared Velte to work hard and stay focused on her goals, she was surprised that it didn’t necessarily help her to choose a specific career. It was enrolling in courses that interested her and, ultimately, working directly with researchers that helped her zero in on her dream job.

“In the past six weeks, I have met with distinguished professors and hardworking growers who have shared their hardships and hopes pertaining to growing plants that will continue to feed the world and dazzle us with vibrant leaves and blooms.”

After Velte completes her undergraduate studies, she plans to attend graduate school and ultimately pursue a Ph.D. She wants to become a member of the research community that she met during her internship and work to improve varieties of ornamental plants and food crops.

Like blackberries.

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