MANHATTAN, Kan. — Curiosity may not have ended up well for the cat, but it’s helping to provide a big career boost to eight undergraduate students at Kansas State University this summer.
They make up the first-ever group of students selected for a nine-week internship providing research and extension experiences that will prepare them for graduate studies and jobs related to producing and protecting plant-based products.
“Much of the U.S. education system is classroom-oriented and students don’t get enough hands-on experience to really figure out what it is they actually like and what they want to do,” said David Cook, an assistant professor of plant pathology and co-director of the program, called Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates, or REEU.
“In this program, they’re not going to learn everything, but they will get broad exposure to science, agriculture, plant health and related fields.”
The program is funded through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to help young professionals learn more about what a future career in agriculture might look like. The students each have a research project they will complete over nine weeks, and they will attend numerous field trips, workshops and lectures.
K-State offers similar programs in biology, physics, chemistry, sustainable energy and math, as well as a program for multicultural students. The plant health program is funded for four years, during which time it will provide summer internships for 35 students.
“A larger goal of this is to help these students be prepared for grad school,” said Megan Kennelly, interim head of the Department of Plant Pathology and the project director. “This way, when they land in grad school, they’ve already had some exposure to research and extension. This program will give them a little edge as graduate students.”
The current group includes four students enrolled at K-State, two from Fort Hays State University, one from Montana State University (Bozeman), and one from Alcorn State University (Lorman, Miss.).
“This program is really refreshing,” said Nathan Ryan, a senior agronomy major at K-State. “REEU is like a graduate school preview for undergraduates, which I think is unique.”
Ryan’s summer project is in the university’s Wheat Genetics Resource Center, where he is working with wheat that contains a chromosome arm from barley and crossing it back into Kansas wheat lines, which may ultimately be used to breed future varieties.
“The purpose of including the barley arm is to get higher amounts of prebiotic soluble fiber, called beta-glucan, in wheat,” Ryan said. “That’s important because beta-glucan has been shown to lower LDL, or the bad cholesterol, in human trials. People in the U.S. eat a lot of wheat, but not that many servings of grains that are high in soluble fiber, like barley or oats. If we can get higher beta-glucan amounts in wheat, that would serve the public well.”
“I hope to hear,” he adds, “that in 10-20 years a breeder has used my crosses to make a new wheat variety that can be marketed as heart-healthy.”
Another K-State student, Marie Biondi, is exploring ways to control the European corn borer, a moth that originated in Europe but has caused large yield losses in Midwest corn. It’s also known to attack numerous other crops, including soybean, cotton, apples, peppers and more.
Her work focuses on a pest management technology known as RNA interference, or RNAi, which suppresses a particular gene in an organism and “shuts off” its ability to cause an undesirable effect on another organism.
In the case of the European corn borer, Biondi is trying to determine why that insect does not respond to RNAi easily, and develop a strategy for controlling the borer without pesticides.
“Once I am done, hopefully we will have a clearer image of what is going on inside these little guys” that prevents them from being controlled through traditional RNAi techniques, she said.
The students have the option to choose projects from 22 faculty members in agronomy, plant pathology, entomology, and horticulture and natural resources. They have taken field trips to Kansas wheat fields where they discussed current conditions; looked at how drones are putting wheat breeding on a fast track; toured the K-State horticulture student farm; and visited wheat breeding plots at Syngenta AgriPro Wheat near Junction City.
Cook noted that the students also are going through a program called Food and Agriculture Cyberinformatics and Tools, FACT, which exposes them to international agriculture and food systems, and the power of computers in science.
“Drones take all of these pictures out in the field, but what do you do with those pictures?” Cook said. “You might take disease notes out in the field, but what do you do with them now?”
“FACT is a program that teaches students to go beyond the standard Excel spreadsheet. Excel is useful, but clearly an important part of education going forward is being able to process large amounts of information.”
Kennelly said that’s important because in its most recent five-year report on employment opportunities for college graduates, the U.S. Department of Agriculture noted that plant science is expected to be one of the strongest job markets available to students.
“We need people coming into (plant science) from different backgrounds,” Kennelly said. “That’s been a strength of plant pathology. We’ve had people come through with backgrounds in genetics and breeding. If we can pull in students who are interested in computers, and also biology, then we can fill in some of the gaps that currently exist in the job market.”
Program coordinator Lucky Mehra noted that K-State’s REEU in plant health also is actively recruiting students from many social backgrounds, including working with Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANRRS), a national non-profit organization.
More information about the REEU program in plant health is available online.