Sowing Seeds, Growing Self
When Bennington alumni mentor current students during Field Work Term (FWT), the time is invaluable to both. Alumni get to connect with the next generation of Bennington students, gaining new perspectives on their current projects. Students, in turn, get the opportunity to ask questions and form connections within the broader Bennington network.
For Madeline Peterson ’19, her FWT at Syracuse University’s Fridley Lab was another step on her path to figuring out how she wants to apply her areas of study, Natural Science and Plant Science, once she graduates from Bennington.
Fridley Lab, which explores the ecology of plant communities, is run by Jason Fridley ’97.
"Jason is a great person in general,” Peterson said. “Because he’s an alum, he also knew what the point of FWT was. He repeated in the beginning, 'You’re not my employee; you’re here to grow yourself.'"
Peterson has used all of her FWTs to dive into different facets of plant science. She spent her first FWT studying plant medicine and herbalism, and last year, she explored Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) and field work. Her past FWT at Fridley Lab, therefore, provided another contrast.
“I wanted experience with a lab environment,” Peterson said. “Both so I could put those skills on a resume, but also so I could apply them to my studies at Bennington.”
At Fridley Lab, in addition to cultivating her own interests, Peterson cultivated seedlings for a long-term experiment the lab is conducting, which compares native and invasive species of plants.
Asking the overarching question, “What makes invasive species invasive?” the experiment delves into how microbial soil community affects the growth of native plants, as well as how invasive species alter this system.
“I set up the pots, transplanted the seedlings, and sterilized soil to get everything ready,” Peterson said. “Once the experimental treatments were in, I made microbial washes for the soils and the different treatments. Later, I set up an automated watering system.”
While assisting Fridley with setup for this experiment, Peterson grew interested in roots. With help from Fridley and others in his lab, Peterson learned the techniques for staining root systems. She plans on continuing her work this term.
Peterson credits Bennington with allowing her the flexibility to pursue projects and learn techniques through hands-on practice.
“I’m trying to find things to inform my advanced work,” Peterson said. “What’s good about the faculty and FWTs I’ve had is that, if you come in with confidence, if you think you can do it, they’ll give you the resources to explore.”
Peterson can also attest that exploration happens within class as well. She loved Evolution, taught by Natural Sciences faculty member Kerry Woods.
“Evolution was a fun class, a lot of problem solving,” Peterson said. “Everyone in that class was also good at sharing space to speak and discuss.”
To add variety to her schedule, Peterson also takes an art class every term for the chance, she jokes, “to move out of the building I’m in all the time.”
Peterson, who hails from Stephentown, NY, grew up less than 45 minutes from Bennington. However, the College’s close proximity to her home, she said, is coincidental.
A small school was one of my priorities. I visited a couple others, but they didn’t feel as comfortable as Bennington. I like the rural, woodsy environment where you can have your own space.
Madeline Peterson '19
She also appreciates how available and helpful Bennington faculty members are. The quick response they provide to student questions, she said, contributes to the College feeling “comfortable and personable.”
When Peterson first toured the school, she was shown around by Naima Starkloff ’15, who was working as an admissions intern.
“At the time, Naima also took care of the greenhouse, which is interesting because now I take care of the greenhouse” Peterson said. “It was almost like a torch pass.”
By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer