Student News

Planting Roots with Biology Research

William Huntley ’23 shares his journey researching leaf morphology at Harvard, his passion for molecular and plant biology, and how his Bennington education helped shape his vision for higher education.

By Halley Le '25

Bennington students are not only inspired to dive in and explore new passions, but also to evaluate and build upon their own work. In true Bennington spirit, William Huntley ’23 has dedicated three Field Work Terms to honing his interest in plant biology by working at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts.

William Huntley is a seventh-term senior from New Hampshire. While he has dabbled in Dance and Food Studies, his current Plan is centered around Biology.

“I primarily study molecular biology. Right now, I'm working on a proteomics research project with my faculty advisor, Dr. Amie McClellan, where I swap out a set of three amino acids in one protein for another set, and explore how the swapping impacts the proteins’ interaction,” explained Huntley. “Food Studies helped inform me about agriculture and the social aspects of my other interests, namely plant biology.”

The Beginnings of a Passion

Huntley’s interest in plant biology has been long nurtured, and he is proud to recall his journey with this passion.

“In my freshman year, I also did my FWT at the Arnold Arboretum. I knew I wanted to get a foot in the door to their plant biology research centers, but I didn’t yet have the credentials to get an actual research position,” recalled Huntley. “I was in the archival department instead, and worked on a photo digitization project at [the Arboretum’s] library. Here I formed a relationship with my boss, Lisa Pearson, who is also the head of the archival department.”

When Huntley found himself ready for a research experience in Winter 2022, he reached out to Pearson for support. She connected him with Dr. Morgan Moeglein, a postdoctoral fellow who was happy to take in an intern for six weeks during the winter. 

“Dr. Moeglein studies the impacts of overwinter bud development on the morphology of leaves. Basically, leaves form in tiny, mini buds at the end of the growing season. If you collect these leaves or buds in the winter, you can dissect them and take a look inside,” said Huntley. “You can see the shape of the leaves and find out how formed they are or how many of them there are.”

The shape and number of the formed leaves, Huntley explained, reveal the strategies that plants use in leaf packing. From this data, researchers can generate broad trends on how different packing strategies impact formation of the leaves during later stages. 

As an intern for Dr. Moeglein project, Huntley’s job included dissecting the leaf buds and analyzing the data.

“We have [leaf buds] in cold storage,” said Huntley. “I took them out, took them apart, looked at the number of leaves in the buds, and flat-scanned them in. Once I have them on my computer, I can analyze them to see how big, long, and wide the leaves are, and also take note of the circular shape and total surface area. I compiled all results into a massive data sheet and performed statistical analysis on the data.”

Data were analyzed for the number and shape of the leaves formed in each individual bud, and how they compare to the leaves of the same tree from the previous growing season.

“For example, the data might tell us that big buds indicate an abundance of leaves at the growing tips, or generous surface area for the leaves to grow,” said Huntley. “In preliminary data that I collected and analyzed over the winter, I actually found a correlation across phylogenetic systems between the overall volume of leaf buds and the total surface area inside leaf buds.”

Huntley received a returning offer for Summer 2022 for his excellent work. Dr. Moeglein went on to refer him to the DaRin Butz Research Internship, a 10-week long summer research program that allowed him to rejoin her lab with a stipend and travel accommodations.

Huntley was excited to continue his project over the summer.

“I really like numbers. I find data science interesting and I have a personal passion for plants. Getting to perform sophisticated data analysis on a system I already love, which are plants, is extra fun for me,” explained Huntley. “I am considering going to graduate school for plant biology, and my principal investigator Dr. Moeglein was insightful, which made the experience more enjoyable.”

Image of leaf under microscope
A dissection from a beech tree spring bud
Image of the inside of a tree
An inside view of a Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia Glyptostroboides)

Biology at Bennington and Beyond

Leaving Bennington to work for a professional research laboratory was indeed a new experience, and Huntley encountered many pleasant surprises, as well as challenges.

“The workplace dynamic is different from my imagination. I have this unconscious idea that people in academia must be formal and sterile,” remarked Huntley. “In fact, working in a lab is not that different from working in a cafe! We spend hours every day with each other, so we end up getting personal and even gossip a little. I went out for a drink with many people I worked with, and the casualness truly surprised me!”

Academia in general, Huntley noticed, was also different from the academic culture that Bennington fosters.

“The Science department in Bennington is small and friendly. We have a lot of LGBTQ+ members, myself included, and a lot of women. This is by no means a representative sample of the real world,” remarked Huntley. “We always see tweets in academia about ‘the boys in my biology class who always talk over me’, which is less of a problem in Bennington, I would hope to say. Going into a space where there is, all of a sudden, a lot of ‘mansplainers’ is weird to me.”

The respectful and inclusive academic environment is not the only thing Huntley appreciates about his Bennington education. Huntley’s classes and teachers have helped prepare him for his intensive and professional research experience.

“I walked into the internship with prior experience using the computer language R for data analysis. I have robust ideas of how to read a scientific article or write a technical report,” recounted Huntley. “I was ready to do a lot of repetitive tasks over and over again, which was an instinct driven into my brain from my previous classroom or lab experiences. I wasn't caught off guard by the dynamics of scientific research! Bennington has taught me to be focused and self driven, which helps me accomplish a lot in a work environment that requires self-discipline, such as the lab space.”

While his plant biology research has been fruitful and fulfilling, Huntley still holds an appreciation for cell biology and molecular biology. The detail-oriented nature of molecular biology research engaged Huntley, and both passions will inform his next step toward further higher education.

“I will likely go to graduate school for molecular plant biology. My research would definitely be informed by my [molecular biology] work [at Bennington],” said Huntley. “I could see myself diving into agricultural sciences. My ideal vision for grad school is the intersection of my two interests, molecular biology and plant biology!”