Student Spotlight: Byron Rusnak

Byron Rusnak

November 7, 2022

Byron Rusnak is a doctoral student in plant biology from Villa Park, Illinois. He earned a B.S. in plant science from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and now studies the growth of sepals in flowers of the species Arabidopsis thaliana under the guidance of Adrienne Roeder.

What is your area of research and why is it important?

Living organisms have the incredible ability to make structures of a precise size and shape over and over again. In particular, I study flowers of the model plant species Arabidopsis thaliana in Adrienne Roeder’s labIn order to properly protect the developing reproductive organs within, the flowers produce four leaf-like organs called sepals that grow to a very precise size and shape so that they can enclose the flower bud. My research attempts to answer how these sepals grow in such a precise and coordinated fashion by applying new imaging and genetic techniques to measure the cellular signaling and growth patterns that lead to this marvelous robustness.

What are the larger implications of this research?

Understanding how plants coordinate their growth and create such robust, reproducible organs can help scientists understand and breed crops more resilient to changing environmental conditions. When sepals fail to grow to the correct size and shape, it can leave the reproductive organs within exposed to the environment and potential damage, which can lower crop yields. For instance, broccoli, which is in the same family as Arabidopsis, is basically a giant cluster of edible flowers, but when the sepals fail to grow robustly the heads become misshapen and unmarketable. 

What does it mean to you to have been awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship?

Being awarded the NSF GRFP is a huge honor. I look forward to utilizing the added flexibility that the fellowship makes possible to advance my proposed research through collaboration and advance my DEI work with the Weill Institute DEI Committee and Qgrads while I’m a student here.

What will this fellowship allow you to do that you might not have otherwise?

This fellowship has allowed me the freedom and flexibility to pursue some unique collaborations to help advance this project. To better understand the mechanical properties of sepals and the internal and external forces they experience while growing, I am collaborating with the architects of Jenny Sabin’s studio, which specializes in biologically inspired architectural design. Their unique perspectives will help us model sepal growth and, in turn, will inform principles for their future architectural designs. I’m also excited to be collaborating with professors in biomedical engineering to improve our imaging techniques. 

What are your hobbies or interests outside of your research or scholarship?

When I’m not in the lab, I’m often out walking around Ithaca or one of the many forests in the area. I also enjoy cooking and baking, gardening at the Cornell Community Gardens, watching TV shows, and recently have begun trying to learn how to draw. 

Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree?

The breadth and quality of the research at Cornell was my primary motivation. There are so many amazing plant scientists here pursuing fascinating research, and it creates a rich and vibrant community where I can learn something new every day. The natural beauty of the area was also a big draw. I love being a short walk from hiking trails and forests!