Short Features

Travels With Amy
UNH student's research takes her to the Ukraine

Senior Amy Snedaker introduced a new pumpkin hybrid developed at UNH to farmers in the Crimea.

Last summer, Amy Snedaker traveled 4,500 miles around the world to spend three months growing pumpkins in the Ukraine.

It was quite an adventure for a student who had never been out of the United States and wasn't even majoring in plant science. And Snedaker had never regarded herself as particularly adventurous, at least not until six years ago.

Amy's life and outlook changed abruptly in 1994 when she learned she had lymphatic cancer. She got the news during the last week of her first semester at UNH. Doctors said she should begin chemotherapy right away. Okay, she said, but first I have to get through finals. Her grade-point average after that harrowing news: 3.58.

Snedaker withdrew from college and devoted the next six months to treatment. "I felt discouraged because I slept 12 to 14 hours every night and felt like I had no energy to do anything," she recalled. She couldn't work longer than a four-hour shift at her part-time job.

Between the nausea, the hair loss, the fevers and difficulty breathing, Snedaker could easily have given up. But if anything, the illness solidified her resolve. "I decided that if I could come back to UNH, I would go after every interest I had ever dreamed of, try everything I'd ever wanted to try while the opportunities existed," she says.

She returned to UNH the following autumn determined not to settle for less. "Let's face it," she says, "I was in a situation that not many college freshmen find themselves in." She pauses and grins, and leans forward conspiratorially. "I don't mean that in a morbid way. I didn't see a bright light or anything. I just thought I'd better take all the unrelated things I was interested in and bring them together."

Snedaker had always known she wanted to be a veterinarian. "I love animals," she says. "I like medicine. I like people, and I wanted to travel abroad. I wanted to learn another language. I like farm work, and I had been working at the UNH research farms. I wanted to do something to help developing countries."

When she heard about undergraduate research grants available through the International Research Opportunities Program (IROP), Snedaker thought she'd found the perfect way to combine many of her greatest interests. She put together a proposal to spend the summer after her junior year introducing the hull-less seeded pumpkin—developed at UNH by plant biologist Brent Loy (UNH Magazine, Fall '99)—to farmers in Crimea, the southernmost state of the Ukraine.

"Not so fast," Paul Josephson, Russian history scholar and coordinator of IROP, told her. "If you want to study in Russia, you'll need to learn the language."

"No problem," she told him.

Josephson was skeptical, but Snedaker had, in fact, already begun to teach herself Russian, listening to Berlitz language instruction tapes and to Russian rock/pop music. She turned to the Internet and found an intensive Russian summer course, which she passed with flying colors. Returning to UNH for her junior year, she went to see Josephson again. He was astonished at what she had done. "Amy is a unique phenomenon," Josephson says.

If the Ukraine is the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union, Crimea is the cornucopia, famous for its rich, black soil and long, subtropical summers. Snedaker thought hull-less seeded pumpkins would be a good crop for the area, since pumpkin-seed oil is comparable in flavor and utility to sunflower seed oil, which is popular there. The hull-less pumpkin seeds also produce more oil per pound than sunflower seeds, and they don't require de-hulling.

Most people in Crimea live hand to mouth and must produce at least some of their own food and sell some of their own products, Snedaker explains. "The young and elderly can be seen every day selling sunflower seeds, fruits or salvaged goods in the markets. Early in the morning, when I was out for my daily run, the townspeople were either already at work in their gardens or were out walking their goats."

Throughout the summer, Snedaker e-mailed her contacts at UNH, revealing through her messages the essence of her IROP experience:

"All is well in the pumpkin patch, and pumpkins are already growing."
"The poverty here is worse than I imagined. . . ."
"I've been to some gorgeous places: Yalta, Massandra, Bakhchisarai, Nikitsky botanical gardens. . . ."
"Thanks for all your help in making it possible for me to come here. It really is the best experience of my life."

Snedaker did encounter some problems. While most of her pumpkin plants thrived, one plot perished because the plants had not been treated with fungicide. At one point, there was no running water for seven days, and she irrigated her pumpkin patch with pails of water carried from the nearby reservoir. There was poverty everywhere, which she found disheartening. And yet, Snedaker loved the Ukrainian countryside so much that she recorded bird songs to help her remember the summer mornings.

While she was in Crimea, she visited a large private farm, experimental stations, vineyards and several schools. Partly due to her visit, there may soon be an agricultural exchange between UNH and the Crimea Agricultural University and Technical College.

"It's extremely difficult to work in the former Soviet Union," Josephson says. "To succeed there, one must must face unimaginable obstacles every day, overcome them and laugh at them. What Amy did, living in the culture and getting along with no previous experience—that's amazing."

A year from now, Snedaker hopes to be in veterinary school. In two years, knock on wood, she will have hit the five-year mark for her remission from cancer. That's important because it's as close to a cure as one can get. Then, one day, she hopes to travel to a developing country and use her education to help others. It's an incredible journey.

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