San Diego Honors 2018 Trip

Perfecting “Cool Stuff” with Plants That Are Loved

Winner of competitive university-wide Rodney A. Erickson Discovery Grant, freshman Ian Chamberlain provides details on his research into caffeine and green beans

By: Rachel Olszewski

The Rodney A. Erickson Discovery Grant Program, named in honor of Penn State's seventeenth President, supports undergraduate student engagement in original research, scholarship, and creative work under the direct supervision of a faculty member. Student projects may be in the arts, engineering, humanities, sciences, and social sciences, given they provide experience in all facets of the research, scholarship, or creative processes. Eligible projects include laboratory and field research, scholarly inquiry, and creative work.

Because Penn State undergraduate students from all campuses in all fields of study may apply for this grant, Ian Chamberlain’s award stands out all the more. Approximately 60 Erickson Discovery Grants, each in the amount of $3,500, are available through the Office of Undergraduate Education for summer 2018, which is when Chamberlain will be at work. The grant money can be used toward his research or as a stipend so he can focus on research instead of working a run-of-the-mill summer job.

Chamberlain’s project, titled “The Environmental and Physiological Effects of Caffeinated Compost on Green Beans”, will determine if caffeine in compost can act as a strong enough deterrent to keep pests away from green bean crops compared to the non-caffeinated controls. The idea stems from the fact that caffeine acts as a natural insecticide due to its bitterness.

Chamberlain and professor Renee Rosier will test the levels of caffeine in various parts of the plant, like the leaves, roots, beans, and flowers, at different times of the green bean growth process, which is approximately 21 days long. Then they will release green bean plants’ natural predator - green bean beetles – and observe any aversion the beetles display, potentially towards the plants with caffeinated soil.

In order to earn this opportunity, Rosier explains, “The process involves working with Ian to come up with a project proposal with clear hypotheses and a clear direction of the experiment, and then a supporting letter from me to explain why I think Ian would be able to complete this project and why he’s a good fit for it. And we submit it and then there is a review at University Park and then they decide who will get this reward.”

In addition to aiding in the application process, Rosier will guide and assist Chamberlain regarding some of the fine points of the experiment, like sample size and controls, as well as make sure he has access to proper equipment and facilities. She also will connect him to a chemist from the Hazleton campus to aid in calculating the caffeine content, explore journals for him to potentially publish in, and coach him on how best to present his research at the Undergraduate Research Exhibition at University Park next March.

Chamberlain’s fascination with plants and their many uses was motivated by his family. He admits, “I never would’ve thought about agriculture before working with my extended family… I got the chance to work on a farm over the summer, kind of like as an intern, down in Virginia. I just fell in love with the whole kind of lifestyle.” He and his aunt even have their own soil recipe he intends to use for the project.

Rosier says this is part of why he is perfect for this research: “Ian is a coffee connoisseur, or coffee snob, depending on how you prefer to phrase it. So, he works at a coffee shop and so of course has all the right connections to get caffeinated composts. But even more important than that is that he has this great family support with gardening.”

Ian Chamberlain Winning Telescoping Spoon 2018

Ian Chamberlain winning Dr. Rosier's Telescoping Spoon Award at the 2018 Celebration of Scholarship

Image: Penn State

His admiration of plant life was enhanced during the Honors trip to San Diego, where he was inspired to research the Joshua Tree. When he presented his findings at the 2018 Celebration of Scholarship, he won Best Presentation Overall and Dr. Rosier’s Telescoping Spoon Award in the biology section.

However, he hopes his research will benefit more than agricultural farmers will; part of his goal is to inform gardeners that they do not have to go out and buy expensive insecticides or pesticides when they may have a cheaper, readily available alternative at home.

Chamberlain’s future plans include more research, not only agricultural but also medical as well: “Biotechnology is a whole world of rapid growth, which is exciting, with plant-based fuel to replace fossil fuels, nutrition – just so much cool stuff with plants that I love.”