Exploring the World of Research

An Inside Look with Lexi Ellis from the CROPPS REU Program

Lexi Ellis

Explore the world of research as we delve into the experiences of summer scholars with the Center for Research on Programmable Plant Systems (CROPPS). Join us in conversations with budding researchers as they walk us through their time in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program for CROPPS hosted by the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) on the Cornell University campus. Gain insights from students Dahlia Isabella Bolt, Lexi Ellis, Jack Greger, Oge Okpala, and Kohl Perry as they engage in discussions about overcoming challenges and revealing the secrets to successful innovation.

Lexi Ellis

  • University: American University
  • Major: Environmental Science
  • Graduation year: 2026
  • Hometown: New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Project:  Increasing Efficiency: Engineering and Automated Tissue Processor for Plant Sciences
  • Mentors: Abe Stroock (Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering) and Margaret Frank (School of Integrative Plant Science)

The CROPPS program combines expertise of researchers from engineering plant sciences, engineering, computer science, and the social sciences to form an integrated approach to plant biological research and translation. Tell us about your REU project with CROPPS faculty and fellow students

“My project is centered around automating the widely used plant science process of propidium iodide staining, which is traditionally carried out manually. The Frank lab’s frequent use of this process and the substantial time it consumes became apparent through a correlation study. For instance, a lab member mentioned conducting over 150 propidium iodide stains for various plant organisms just last summer. To address this issue, our project combines engineering principles with biological processes to develop an automated system. By doing so, we aim to significantly enhance the efficiency of propidium iodide staining and streamline the lab’s workflow. Moreover, the high cost associated with existing automated tissue processors highlights the urgency for an affordable alternative that can be easily replicated in other research labs in the future. This endeavor seeks to make plant science research more accessible and cost-effective.”

What drew you to join this project?

“In high school I was widely into robotics so I knew I wanted a project catered to engineering. When I applied for this program in particular my mentors reached out to me to show me that this program was more than just about plant science but that it includes other engineered processes as well. BTI was so willing and open to helping me learn that I knew participating in a project like this would provide a safe and fun learning environment.”

CROPPS believes in the power of mentorship for young scientists. Tell us how that mentoring process unfolded for you through your REU summer

“During my internship with the prestigious Stroock and Frank labs, I’ve had an incredibly positive and rewarding experience. This opportunity has allowed me to make significant progress in my coding skills, particularly in Python and C++, while also improving my engineering capabilities, such as soldering and project design. One of the highlights of my internship has been the chance to work on a project that merges plant sciences with engineering principles. This unique approach has opened up new perspectives and challenged me to think creatively to enhance existing processes and explore novel solutions. The support and mentorship I’ve received from the experts at Stroock and Frank Lab have been instrumental in my professional growth. Their guidance has inspired me to pursue further research and development, and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to their cutting-edge work. I am genuinely appreciative of this internship experience and look forward to leveraging the knowledge and skills I’ve gained to make a meaningful impact in the field of plant sciences and engineering as I continue on my career path.”

What is the biggest scientific challenge you want to tackle as you progress in your career?

“I find that as an Afro-Caribbean woman my biggest challenge is proving myself to others. A lot of times diverse voices aren’t appreciated which can make an individual feel unappreciated or like they’re constantly second guessing themselves. I want to tackle this so that more engineers of color feel included and like they belong in spaces that originally weren’t meant for them.”

What has been your favorite part of the REU program?

“My favorite part of the REU program has to be the weekend trips. BTI schedules three one-day trips to various New York places to allow the interns to experience a new part of New York while we’re in upstate. My favorite trip was Niagara Falls: it was so full of life and I even got to go on the Canadian side as well.”

How has this summer experience prepared you for the future?

“I feel like I now know a little bit more about my desired discipline and the necessary steps I must do to take it. This internship has just entirely fueled my passion and my love for engineering, and I can now utilize certain skills and certain mindset going forward. I would 100% recommend a summer REU for anyone looking to know more about themselves or their abilities in STEM. And the beauty of participating in a summer research experience is that next summer you can do something completely different. This way you can gauge your range of interest and keep from limiting your potential.”