Electrical engineering student's impactful internship at NYS Agricultural Experiment Station

From left, college intern Josh VanDeMortel, high school student Cooper Whiteleather, college intern Jake Grimaldi, high school student Jessica Fisk and Plant Breeder and Research Geneticist Gennaro Fazio are working together to conduct research on apple rootstock at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. Photo credit: Joanna Reigle, Finger Lakes Times.

by Emily Sugarman

Published August 18, 2017

Josh VanDeMortel is overseeing the care of up to 5,000 apple tree seedlings this summer, carefully recording data and making sure that each seedling has enough sun and water to thrive.  

“What I find inspiring about my work is that there is a near infinite amount of ways to approach or study a problem, and the team I work with is very open minded in inventing new solutions.”
Josh VanDeMortel, electrical engineering student

VanDeMortel’s goal is to ensure that the seedlings of disease-resistant dwarf apple trees will grow big and strong enough for the rootstock to be harvested and then grafted to other varieties of apple trees that are less resistant to diseases. 

Employing disease-resistant dwarf apple tree rootstock to grow apple trees for agricultural purposes is greatly impactful; a higher number of trees can grow in a given area, ladders that threaten worker safety are no longer necessary, and the need for pesticides is decreased.

His work is all part of a fascinating internship that VanDeMortel, a third-year electrical engineering and business student, is participating in this summer at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y. 

Under the guidance of research geneticist Gennaro Fazio, PhD, VanDeMortel is working on developing and expanding the industry of apple rootstock and breeding by pairing varieties of rootstock to grafted rootstock developed by breeders internationally.

VanDeMortel became involved with the internship through his friendship with Fazio’s son, who told VanDeMortel that Fazio was looking for help. “I instantly applied as I was intrigued by how over my head the science was and knew that it would be a great work experience,” VanDeMortel said.

“What I find inspiring about my work is that there is a near infinite amount of ways to approach or study a problem, and the team I work with is very open minded in inventing new solutions,” said VanDeMortel. “Because of this, our department has been able to produce aeroponic systems to grow trees without having them planted in soil, create camera systems that monitor root growth, and much more."

An article in the Finger Lake Times, which features VanDeMortel, Fazio and three other student researchers, revealed the unique roles that each person has in the research process. According to the article, VanDeMortel, who is now known as the nursery expert, will care for the 1,000-5,000 seedlings at the research station. 

Some of the other students are performing research in lab gene expression, high-definition imaging, and advanced data collection. 

When asked what he likes most about his internship, VanDeMortel responded, “There is always so much going on. Many people are working on a multitude of different projects each and every day, and it’s an invaluable and rewarding experience to be a piece of the puzzle and learn how to operate with a team of people all at once across many different tasks.”

VanDeMortel continued, “At the same time it is a challenge. With so many people and so many moving parts it is sometimes difficult to keep progressing without issues, yet overcoming these issues is part of the experience."

After he graduates from UB, VanDeMortel hopes to earn his MBA, practice as an electrical engineer, and eventually manage his own engineering firm. 

VanDeMortel's challenging yet rewarding work can truly make a positive impact —from a research center in Geneva to around the world. He inspires the greater UB community to make a difference on our planet through innovation.