Society problems

Undergraduates win Northeastern Weed Science Society competition

Cornell’s undergraduate weed team won first place, while Megan Wittmeyer ’22 won the top individual undergraduate prize, at the Northeastern Weed Science Society Collegiate Weed Science Competition on July 27.

Held this year at Syngenta Canada’s Honeywood Research Facility in Plattsville, Ontario, the annual competition – suspended for two years due to the pandemic – brought together 60 students from Cornell, Clemson University, North Carolina State University, Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers University, Virginia Tech and host school the University of Guelph.

In addition to Wittmeyer, Cornell’s winning undergraduates were Lizzy Fitzgerald ’22, Michael Lovier ’24, and Rebecca Stup ’23.

“The competition was great and eye-opening to see how many of the graduate students and faculty — participating from other schools — were Cornell alumni,” said Lovier, who spoke with numerous contestants, judges and scientists. “It was motivating to hear about their research and Cornell’s role in sparking that interest.”

In the competition, graduate and undergraduate students identified weeds in various growth stages and identified herbicide applications for different crops based on visual symptoms. Students calibrated sprayers and application speeds, and solved agricultural problems – while in the field and thinking on their feet – all without consulting a textbook.

“A highlight for me was the producer issues section,” Fitzgerald said. “I really liked being able to combine everything we had studied and apply it to a real-world problem. It’s like solving a puzzle.

Before the team reached the crop fields, they practiced the night before by running sprayer calibrations (with water) in the hotel parking lot and doing an identification walking tour weeds until sunset.

The students – with their gas canisters and spray backpacks – looked like ghost hunters walking through the hotel. “A lady at the lobby reception looked shocked,” Lovier said. “Obviously knapsack sprayers are not common.”

This summer, Wittmeyer worked in Aurora, New York, with Larissa Smith ’98, MS ’06, a Syngenta research and development field scientist, collecting data on new products. Smith gave her ample material to study for the contest.

In addition to his summer with Syngenta, Wittmeyer helps out on his family’s dairy farm in North Collins, New York, near Buffalo, where they grow hay, corn and soybeans — and milk about 130 cows.

For the undergraduate team events of the competition, two teams from the University of Guelph took second and third place.

Antonio DiTommaso, professor and chair of soil and crop science at the School of Integrative Plant Science (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences), and Lynn Sosnoskie, assistant professor of weed ecology at Cornell AgriTech (CALS) in Geneva, New York, serve as advisors to the team.

The team’s trip was funded by the School of Integrative Plant Science. The competition returns next year to North Carolina State University.