Internship Brings Chemistry Major Closer to the Ground
Sania Ilyas ’25 became interested in agriculture at a very young age, when a neighbor asked her and her siblings for some gardening help.
“She taught us how to grow vegetables like tomatoes, green beans, and onions,” said Ilyas. “However, her specialty was flowers. She taught us how to take care of different plants and pay attention to when they need to be watered or fertilized. That was when I first learned about perennial and annual plants. Also, I was always interested in cooking and baking, and she showed me that cooking starts in the garden. The best recipes are made from your own fruits and vegetables.”
“I focus on cluster analysis, where we isolate species in order to get a deeper understanding of mechanisms of catalysts,” she said. “We also study atmospheric particles as they play a large role in the climate. The research is very environmentally heavy which is exactly what I was looking for.”
As an extension of her research, Ilyas spent her summer as an intern in the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Suffolk County. The CCE program, supported by the national Land-Grant system and Cornell University, works to preserve Suffolk County’s ecosystems and to provide opportunities for research-based education in science, technology, engineering and math. It works directly with Long Island’s farmers and fishermen who rely on the latest research, guidance and assistance to protect the environment and promote the economic health of these vital heritage industries.
Ilyas focused on growing grapes, learning about diseases that can affect plants based on the condition and area they are grown in, collecting leaf samples, taking growth rate data, and evaluating the effectiveness of different treatments in the soil the plants are grown in.
Ilyas described her experience as nothing short of interesting, joyful, and educational, with enlightening conversations along with both field work and lab work. “This internship made me a better problem-solver in any situation and connected me with a network of others in the field,” she said. “Not only do you learn about the program that you work in, you also learn about other programs and how they interact with one another to troubleshoot any issue and find answers to research questions. It was a great experience working with CCE to help commercial growers find suitable solutions in agriculture in terms of treatments on different crops.”
Ilyas said working in laboratories has always come naturally to her.
“The classes I have enjoyed the most were the chemistry labs and research and environmental humanities,” she said. “Environmental humanities opened a lot of doors and helped me understand the impact of the humanities. Science discoveries are very important, but it’s just as important to communicate those discoveries effectively.”
Ilyas cited David Taylor, an assistant professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS), and Christopher Johnson, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, as mentors who have had a positive influence.
“They both taught me that the biggest limitations are the ones someone puts on themselves,” she said. “They have given me confidence and courage to stand up for myself and what I want for which I am eternally grateful.”
“Sania was in my Introduction to Environmental Humanities class,” said Taylor. “She explained to me that she loved her Chemistry major but wanted the chance to find a hands-on, out-of-the-lab internship. Cornell Cooperative Extension just so happened to be looking for student interns who did not mind getting their hands dirty. I heard from Sania early on in the summer about how much she loved her internship and the leadership guiding her work and research. I can’t tell you how happy I am for her to have had such an outstanding experience. She gained from the internship and Cornell gained from her hard work.”
As for the future, Ilyas is focusing on a career in the environmental field that involves chemistry.
“Chemistry is a very important aspect of agriculture that can be overlooked,” she said. “This could include water waste management, air quality control, or working on cosmetics or the components of agricultural products such as fertilizers and pesticides in a way that does not negatively affect the planet. All of these help the agricultural field as well as many other fields in order to ensure the safety of life.”
— Robert Emproto
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