Cadet Chris Kushner ’24, a biology major and Institute Honors cadet, took his research and some creativity to a recent virtual conference and came away with deserved recognition from the judges.
Kushner is studying soybeans in order to increase their yields in Virginia. His research is part of a long-term project led by Col. Anne Alerding, Ph.D., professor of biology, and part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Institute and the Dr. Fred C. Swope program, named after one of VMI’s most visionary biology department chairmen. The program was established in 1991 and designed to acquaint undergraduate students with the philosophy, practices, and techniques of research.
Soybeans can be used in various ways: Healthcare and cancer treatments, water treatment, and most largely in animal and human nutrition. The United States is the top soybean producer in the world. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Midwest is the main producer in the country, with certain areas producing as many as 8 million bushels per year, compared to sections of the East Coast, only being able to produce slightly under 2 million bushels.
Kushner explains that traditionally, soybean production research has focused on manually counting pods and seeds directly harvested from a plot of land. He wants to explore and compare ways to identify soybeans using computer analysis through machine learning—that is, programming the computer to identify soybeans itself based on pixel data. “Computers can count much faster than people, so getting the computer to recognize different characteristics of soybeans speeds up the process [of] counting the shoots-to-pods ratio. It will make it easier to identify soybean plants that have higher outputs, so farmers know which seeds to sow,” Kushner stated.
Kushner recently presented his research at a research conference, Virtual Soy 2022: Molecular and Cellular Biology of the Soybean, held online because of COVID-19. He had his own virtual “breakout room” and gave his seven-minute presentation multiple times to different people, each time displaying a high level of engagement and drawing attendees into his work. His presentation included a poster that explained his research methodology, results and conclusions, photographs, and graphs. The posters of the presenters were judged. The four judges were impressed with Kushner’s work—so much so that he won fourth place in the competition. The achievement is significant, as he was the only undergraduate competing against many graduate students—some working toward their doctoral degrees.
In addition, the conference occurred during Matriculation Week, the week of intense training for new cadets. Kushner is an EMT on post and had to be present during the new cadet training to assist with any injury or illness. “I didn’t get much sleep that week, but the conference was a great experience,” said Kushner. “I practiced my presentation many times to make sure it was polished, so coming in fourth place was very satisfying.”
According to Alerding, Kushner’s data will be submitted this year to Crop Science, a peer-reviewed scientific journal covering agronomy. “It’s been incredible to see his dedication and focus. His presentation at the conference was impressive, especially given the EMT responsibilities going on at the same time. I feel lucky to have met Chris during his freshman year, which allowed him to choose a project that suited his interests in chemistry, biology, and quantitative biology,” stated Alerding.
Kushner is also being advised on his research by Dr. Aryeh Weiss, Ph.D., a colleague of Alerding’s who teaches at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Kushner and Weiss meet weekly over the internet. Alerding plans to take Kushner to Israel later in the academic year to continue advancing his work, which he plans to develop for his Institute Honors research. “Doctor Weiss is a great asset and wonderful mentor,” Kushner said.
Kushner is from Stafford, Virginia, where he attended Mountain View High School. In addition to serving as an EMT on post, he is platoon sergeant for Company D. After graduating, he plans on commissioning into the Army and going into the medical corps. His long-term goal is to attend medical school and become an orthopedic surgeon.
Marianne Hause VMI Communications & Marketing