The door to the lab opens and a wall of heat greets Timothy Helbig (CMU'10). Helbig studies thermal tolerance in plants, hoping to discover how plants will adapt to heat stresses as we face climate change. And his work often finds him in a small, 112° room.
"It's like spending two hours in a sauna, but you have to wear clothes," he joked. Helbig says people study thermal tolerance in plants for two reasons. The first is to understand how plants might respond to changing levels of heat.
"People are interested in seeing how communities of plants will respond to global climate change and the possible ecological implications their response might entail," he said.
The other reason, says Helbig, is to see if plants can be modified to be more thermally tolerant.
"This is important work as — if they are able to be modified — crops could be grown on former ground that was unsuitable for them, or crops could be modified to withstand the impacts of climate change so that the existing levels of crop production would not diminish."
Helbig applied to Carnegie Mellon in part because of the strong recommendations from a high school friend.
"Carnegie Mellon seemed to offer the most flexibility of any of the colleges that I was considering in regards to a breadth of education," he said. "Beyond that, Carnegie Mellon just felt intangibly more right than any other school."
A recipient of the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, Helbig first became hooked on biological research through a Carnegie Mellon University program known as Summer Research Institute (SRI). SRI is geared toward introducing biological research early to undergraduates.
"It was wonderful. The instructors at Carnegie Mellon...Peter Berget, Jim Burnette...did such a great job inspiring a love of research in all of the people involved," he recalled. "Even though what I do now — working with plants — is not exactly what I was doing then, SRI got me started and prepared me for what I wanted to do."