Finding His Place in Science

As a young student growing up in the Bronx, Eugene Acevedo ’20 often visited the New York Botanical Garden with his classmates. 

“We went there all the time on school trips,” says Eugene. “We would walk around the grounds and through the conservatory; I never realized there was a laboratory there.”

For nine weeks last summer, Eugene not only discovered the Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), he played an integral role in the scientific research being conducted there. Eugene was an NYBG summer intern, working alongside Cullman Associate Curator of Bioinformatics Dr. Damon Little, a world-renowned research scientist, and pioneer in the advancement of technological DNA barcoding. Eugene assisted Dr. Little with his research on calliatropsis macnabiana, a species of cypress in the conifer family. Eugene studied the conifer’s transfusion tracheids—cells in vascular plant tissue that assist in the transportation of water and minerals. 

“I worked with a very large set of samples collected by Dr. Little and his team,” says Eugene. “The samples had been collected, but not yet studied. Much of my work involved looking at the transfusion tracheids through a scanning electron microscope, measuring them, recording the measurements, then using an additional program to add georeferences to each sample. Most came from northern and central California.”

For Eugene, simply working with the scanning electron microscope (SEM) was an extraordinary opportunity. SEMs use electrons for imaging, as opposed to the light used in traditional microscopes. With an SEM, a pinpoint beam of electrons scans the surface of the sample. The electrons click with the sample’s atoms to produce signals that essentially map its surface topography and composition, then use those signals to shape an image. Since the wavelength of electrons is much smaller than the wavelength of light, the resolution of SEMs is far better—as much as 250 times the magnification limit better—than that of the best light microscopes. 

“What I was able to see in the SEM was fascinating,” Eugene says. “I was able to observe actual plant cells and structures—things that I had previously only seen in textbooks. Not a lot of people my age have worked with an SEM; I’m hoping that will benefit me in some way sometime in the future.”

It was, in part, that eye on a future in a science-based field that drove Eugene to apply for the internship.

“I took biology at Taft last year and realized that I like working in laboratory space,” Eugene explains. “Working with the NYBG laboratory allowed me to take that to the next level--to help me see what my place in science might be.”

For the past six summers, Taft students have spent time working alongside renowned research scientists at The New York Botanical Garden. It is part of a unique partnership between the school and the Garden. This year, Eugene’s internship was made possible by: The Meek Foundation; Dwight L. Stocker III '74.