Allegheny alumna returns for undergrad seminars


Dr. Emily Pfeufer

Allegheny alumna Emily Pfeufer, ’08, a doctor in plant pathology, returned to campus this past Thursday, Nov. 10, to share her experiences and wisdom about the world after undergraduate studies.
Pfeufer originally returned to Allegheny in September for Blue and Gold Weekend when she earned an induction into the Allegheny Athletic Hall of Fame for her success on the Track and Field team in long and triple jump.
“She reached out and asked if we could have coffee,” said Professor of Biology Catharina Coenen. “And I said, ‘You’re a plant pathologist and I am teaching two classes this semester who should meet you. I would love it if you could come talk to those classes.’”
Plant pathology is the study of diseases that affect plants, which can be caused by pathogens or environmental conditions, according to Science Direct.
Pfeufer was unable to conduct her talks in September due to the nature of her research, Coenen explained.
“We had to work with some clearances at the USDA in order to get her cleared for the classroom visits and for giving a public seminar on her research,” Coenen said.
Pfeufer works with Foreign Disease-Weed Science Research Unit at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, according to the flyer published detailing her seminar. Given its nature as a federal job, she was unable to make private comments to The Campus without clearing the interview with her agency.
Pfeufer’s research examines potential threats to American food security that may arise in response to climate change — specifically plant diseases caused by “oomycetes.” According to the American Phytopathological Society, oomycetes are small, fungi-like parasitic water molds.
“Plant pathologists tend to be completely under-acknowledged in their contribution to world food security,” Coenen said. “In my mind, they are major contributors to world peace because agricultural failures lead to hunger, which tends to lead to violence.”
Pfeufer’s evening research seminar detailed her recent findings on the oomycete genus Phytopythium and its relevant species. According to the flyer, her team has found that higher temperatures and increased irrigation in response to climate change may increase Phytopythium-induced diseases in US-grown citrus plants. Her seminar summarized this ongoing research that has been years in the making.
In addition to giving a public seminar on her research, Pfeufer also attended multiple mentoring meetings with Coenen’s students to discuss options in the biological sciences after finishing undergraduate education.
“I was really excited about the opportunity to give students an idea of what a career in plant pathology could look like,” Coenen said. “(But), I wanted (these events) to be attractive to students who could not at all see themselves doing agriculture. I wanted them to be able to get something out of it even if their main interest might be medicine, or completely different kinds of fields of scientific inquiry.”
While the evening seminar focused on Pfeufer’s scientific research, the classroom visits focused more on advising individual students, answering questions and offering advice.
“(Pfeufer) focused a lot on (explaining) it’s important to do what you like, and to try different things because even if you don’t like what you try, it still helps you find what you do like,” said Kaylee Sadowski, ’24.
The talks in class focused mostly on understanding the application processes of both graduate schools and the workforce, Sadowski explained. Pfeufer offered advice on how to best present yourself in these situations.
“We talked about interviewing nerves, how scary they are,” Sadowski said. “And she said to think about as you’re interviewing them too, and that they chose you. So just be yourself.”
In addition to the in-class talks, Coenen also worked with Liam Jones, ’23, co-president of the newly-reformed Allegheny chapter of the biology honor society Beta Beta Beta — commonly known as “Tri-Beta” — to organize an informal luncheon with Pfeufer.
“Liam was very excited about having a speaker visit as part of Tri-Beta’s program,” Coenen said. “And so we organized a pizza lunch as part of the visit.”
Tri-Beta, a national biology honor society, briefly disbanded its Allegheny chapter during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the officers then were unable to pass the leadership along. The club was reestablished this past fall by Jones and Co-President Hanah Simmons, ’23.
“I’ve been trying to get it started up again since last year as a first semester junior,” said Jones. “(It) took a lot of work. Eventually, we got people on board and it all fell into place, and we were able to start it up this year.”
Jones heard about the research seminar Pfeufer was set to give through Coenen. They decided to set up the luncheon using funding from the Darling Distinguished Speaker Fund, which was established to facilitate experiences with educational speakers for students.
Jones said that one of his goals in organizing the luncheon was to give students the opportunity to learn about fields of science that are not really present in the Allegheny curriculum.
“I know that there’s not too many people interested in botany,” Jones said. “It’s kind of a field that we don’t have at Allegheny. One of my main goals when restarting Tri-Beta was to try and do a lot of interests like zoology, microbiology, genetics, and when an opportunity to have someone from the field of botany came through I jumped at the idea.”
Emma Ruhl, ’23, a student in Coenen’s class on microbiology and attendee of the luncheon, echoed the sentiment.
“I thought it was really interesting,” Ruhl said. “I think it’s a really interesting opportunity to kind of get to know other careers in the bio department because sometimes I feel like we’re limited.”
The lunch setting was also intended to provide a more relaxed environment for students to have more of a conversation with Pfeufer.
“It was very relaxing,” Ruhl said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so nervous. What do I say?’ But everyone seemed very chill. So it was nice.”
Students expressed mixed feelings about how the advice they received from Pfeufer affected their ideas about their future plans. Some, like Sadowski, came away from the talks feeling more confident about their career paths.
“I just thought (Pfeufer’s advice) was a good little confidence boost for interviews,” Sadowski said.
Others felt a little less clear about what their future career path may look like.
“It was helpful, but also it kind of made me a little more confused, in a way,” Ruhl said. “It was just a lot of information to take in. I think it was beneficial to hear about that, especially coming from an alum, but it was also still iffy for me because I’m still kind of in the process of thinking about what I want to do after graduation.”
Regardless, both students still expressed interest in attending more organized talks like this in the future.
“I hope they’re able to sponsor more,” Ruhl said. “I was very happy to hear that Tri-Beta sponsored them too.”
Tri-Beta meets biweekly in Steffee B102. Students of all majors are invited to join and share in a love for science.
“We’re looking to grow our club because it’s an actual honor society,” said Jones. “It’s not just a club. It’s a nationwide honor society.”