Cornell researcher headed to Chile as a Fulbright Scholar

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Mark Bridgen gives a garden tour at Cornell in July.
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Mark Bridgen gives a garden tour at Cornell in July.

Mark Bridgen’s passion for plants first grew in Pittsburgh, where he’s originally from. Now it will expand into Chile for an entire semester.

The Cornell horticulture professor and current director of Cornell’s Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Riverhead was named a 2013 Fulbright Scholar in March, giving him the opportunity to teach and conduct research from late August until early December at a university in Chile.

Dr. Bridgen’s plant curiosity began when he was a child. While his mother worked as a secretary and his father did research for Gulf Oil, he developed a love of hiking and camping. When he was a little older, he taught children about nature as a camp counselor.

The prestigious and very competitive Fulbright Scholar award will allow Dr. Bridgen to take sabbatical leave and visit the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC) in Santiago. He’ll conduct research on breeding native Chilean plants and also teach three classes — plant exploration, ways to multiply plants, and conversations in English about agriculture and scientific terms.

“I was pretty happy,” Dr. Bridgen said in an interview Tuesday about winning the Fulbright Scholar award. “I get to go to Chile a lot and this will be my longest trip.”

Since 1985, he’s traveled to Chile about 20 times to study and crossbreed Alstroemeria flowers, commonly known as Inca lilies. Combining winter-growing species from Chile and summer-growing species from Brazil, he has created a hardier flower that lasts throughout the year in a greenhouse, he said.

The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program sends nearly 1,100 American professionals each year to 125 countries for opportunities to study, teach and conduct research, according to its website.

Since its inception, about 310,000 people have participated, and the program currently operates in over 155 countries.

Dr. Bridgen said he’s looking forward to this trip because he’ll visit the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world.

“I’m excited to see the flowers there,” he said. “Chile is as long as the U.S. is wide. Its entire western border is shoreline. It’s a beautiful place.”

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