Biology major’s passion for plants feeds his research to improve soybeans

McDaniel College biology major at the Danforth Plant Science Center
October 03, 2019

Like many science majors, Cooper Hostetler wants to make the world a better place through technology. But the McDaniel senior’s focus isn’t medicine or engineering or even video game design.

Hostetler imagines fields of green — literally —  producing super food for animals and people.

“Our world is facing many significant challenges and I hope to use the power of biology to contribute to solving some of those problems,” he said, just weeks after his 11-week National Science Foundation internship at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. “If we can make plants better that will have an enormous positive impact on the world.”

The Molecular Biology major from Cumberland, Md., conducted research on improving the agricultural productivity of soybeans. He tested mutant soybean lines for higher-than-normal oil and protein content. Used for mostly for biofuel and in animal feed — which ultimately feeds people — 89 million acres of soybeans are grown in the U.S. every year. That’s nearly 4 percent of the continental U.S., an area larger than the state of New Mexico.

Originally Hostetler’s research project was to analyze different lines of mutant soybeans for their lipid and sugar content. Then his project mentor, a postdoctoral researcher, mentioned the possibility of looking at the protein content too. Since the oil and protein are the valuable parts of the soybean, Hostetler couldn’t resist adding protein analysis to his studies.

“Adding proteins to my research created a lot of additional work but I instantly wanted to do it,” said Hostetler, whose internship was supported with a Summer Intern Fellowship funded by The Rupe-Stuart Internship Award and awarded through McDaniel’s Center for Experience and Opportunity.  “I had to work diligently and put in some extra hours to get through all the samples but it was worth it because it gave us a more complete view of the soybeans and told a much better story.”

Lab skills honed in a variety of his classes helped him perform the day-to-day technical work and he found that he applied knowledge gained in chemistry, botany, genetics and more to consider what his results meant and what to do next.

However, his experience as a research student in McDaniel Biology professor Cheng Huang’s lab proved invaluable in his success at Danforth.

“In Dr. Huang’s lab I was able to get a sense of what research is really like and learn how to go about designing and executing a project,” he said. “This experience really allowed me to excel at the Danforth Center.”

After his May 2020 graduation, Hostetler plans to go to graduate school before heading to a career in biotechnology. Although he spent the summer in a lab not in a field of soybeans, he never lost sight of the idea that if you feed animals, you also feed people.

“My internship gave me a more realistic sense of research beyond college — and it was rewarding to combine my passion for plants with real experience that could lead to a better soybean,” Hostetler said. “I couldn’t help but think of the bigger perspective — I love what the result of this research could be.”