One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about studying plant pathology is the opportunity to share my excitement about plants and plant diseases with other people (whether it’s growers or people from the community). In this picture, I am showing a sick cabbage plant to local third graders.
My year in PULSE taught me to see and appreciate the beauty of cities. I used to view them mostly as crowded, loud, busy places where I could never imagine myself living. I learned that cities foster a connectedness that is sometimes difficult to find in suburban or rural areas. I see communities differently, now – whether they are defined by where you live, where you work, or where you worship. I recognize that you need to invest time and effort in them, that sometimes they are difficult and uncomfortable, but that the investment is worth it.
Amara Camp Dunn is PULSE ’06 alumna. Highlights from her experience include working with Grow Pittsburgh, where she was able to pursue her interests and passions for agriculture work, and building relationships with people in her community. Amara elaborates on her formative year with PULSE in the interview below.
What kind of work do you do now?
I am a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University in the field of plant pathology. I study diseases of vegetables – how to manage them and the biology of the microorganisms that cause them. This involves conducting experiments in both the field and the laboratory and communicating the results. Some of this communication involves sharing research-based information about plant disease management with farmers and the public (“extension”). I’ve also been active in outreach programs to the local elementary school.
What about the PULSE program was attractive to you?
When I was getting ready to start my last semester of college, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I wasn’t ready to commit to a graduate program (or sure that’s what I wanted) and I didn’t have a “dream job” I was looking for. I had enjoyed volunteering and participating in service-learning trips in college, so I started looking into full-time volunteer opportunities. As a biology major, I found that most volunteer programs offered opportunities that either involved teaching or were more closely aligned with arts, humanities, and social sciences. PULSE offered to work with applicants to find placements that were a match for their skills and background, and I saw that some previous participants had placements that were more aligned with the natural sciences. I was also excited about the prospect of living in community, and also looking to stretch myself a little bit by living in a city (something I’d never done before).
How were you impacted by your PULSE experience?
Ever since my year in PULSE, Pittsburgh will always have a special place in my heart. I’m always excited to meet someone who has lived in Pittsburgh, and recently I was thrilled to run into someone who had spent some time working at the Union Project. But perhaps more importantly, my year in PULSE taught me to see and appreciate the beauty of cities, in general. I used to view them mostly as crowded, loud, busy places where I could never imagine myself living. But I learned to see how cities also foster a connectedness that is sometimes difficult to find in suburban or rural areas. I also see communities differently, now – whether they are defined by where you live, where you work, or where you worship. I recognize that you need to invest time and effort in them, that sometimes they are difficult and uncomfortable, and that they are always made up of other imperfect people (like me), but that the investment is worth it. Finally, living in a house with so many different people (personalities, ideas, interests, talents, backgrounds) helped me evaluate my own opinions, ideas, and personality traits (the good and the bad!).
What was the best part of your PULSE experience?
The community was definitely the best part of my PULSE experience, and I experienced it in three ways during my year in Pittsburgh: (1) the community that was formed in the house (like any household, we didn’t always get along 100%, but we were always there for each other); (2) the larger PULSE community (alumni who were still living and involved in nearby neighborhoods, as well as other PULSE supporters) who were eager to introduce us to Pittsburgh and help us connect; (3) the community that I developed as I participated in events at the Union Project and attended a local church that met there. I remember my parents visiting me one weekend and as we walked through the neighborhood around the Stanton Avenue house we ran into three or four people who greeted me by name and stopped to say ‘hi’. Not only were my parents impressed, but I had such an incredible feeling of belonging.
How did PULSE prepare you for what you are doing now?
This question brings so many things to mind. If I were to summarize them in one sentence, I would say that PULSE gave me new and unique learning opportunities that continue to shape me both personally and professionally. My placement with Grow Pittsburgh provided the opportunity to work on a small organic vegetable farm and see the challenges and rewards of small-scale vegetable production and marketing first hand. This experience was very important as I – who grew up in the suburbs and had no farming experience – began graduate work in an agricultural science. It also gave me a unique perspective as a graduate student in a field that works more with larger-scale farmers than with small urban farms. My PULSE placement gave me a very different perspective on the land grant university/cooperative extension system, and the growth areas for that system to be able to serve all types of farmers better.
The outreach work I did with Grow Pittsburgh was also eye-opening. Working with my supervisor, I was trying to make connections with local religious and community organizations that might be interested in starting gardens. I quickly learned that great collaborations and new programs do not come from a single brainstorming session. Taking time to really understand the needs of an organization/community and how your idea will meet those needs is important. Finally, my year in PULSE really strengthened my self-confidence because I proved to myself that I could adapt to new situations and settings and learn new skills (like how to get around the city on a bus!).
I didn’t realize it at the time, but for many people the first year or two after they graduate from college is a limited window of opportunity to explore and try something completely new and different and gain important perspective. It certainly was for me. Once you start a graduate program or start a “real job”, it’s much harder to go back. I am so glad I took advantage of that window of opportunity and spent it at PULSE! Whenever I talk with college students (I meet quite a few undergraduate interns in the lab.), I always highly recommend taking a year off after college and doing something like PULSE.
What did the PULSE experience teach you about yourself?
I learned that I could live (and thrive) in a city. Previously I’d only lived in the suburbs, and my college was in a very rural community. I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy living in a city, but I really did. I also learned how important a sense of community is to me, and that has impacted the way I approached connecting with a new faith community after I moved away from Pittsburgh to start graduate school. It has also impacted how I’ve sought community where I’ve lived and worked.
How have you stayed connected with PULSE?
Mostly I keep up with what is going on in PULSE by reading PULSE Facebook posts and emails. My housemates and I initially sent at least annual update emails to each other. Now we only get in touch once every few years, but I still enjoy hearing what and how everyone is doing. I sometimes wish I could continue to be connected with PULSE in person, but Pittsburgh is just too far away from central NY (where I live now).
Story by PULSE fellow Jenna Baron.
Read more stories about PULSE Alumni. If you would like to learn more about the PULSE program, please visit our Serve with Us page.