Growing up, Hannah Jo loved spending time outside and working in her parent’s garden, lined with all sorts of different fruit trees, and filled with various vegetables and flowers.
Now, as a senior at Tall Oaks Classical School in Bear, Delaware, and with an eye towards a potential future as a plant scientist, Jo decided to reach out to members of the University of Delaware’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences to see if any of them could help her get involved in plant research.
She found a perfect match in Randy Wisser, associate professor of plant genetics at UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, who supported a summer internship that culminated with Jo being selected as Delaware’s sole delegate for the 2017 World Food Prize Global Youth Institute in Des Moines, Iowa where Jo presented an essay on maize lethal necrosis disease afflicting farms in Kenya.
Wisser said that every summer, his research lab runs a plant breeding internship program that hosts several high school and undergraduate students in an outdoor laboratory at UD’s Newark farm. These students meet and talk with graduate students and senior members of Wisser’s research group as they learn how the management of breeding nurseries and field experiments link to basic research in plant genetics, which in turn translates to discoveries that boost agriculture.
“It’s a competitive process to be selected into our internship program, and as we were finalizing our selections, Hannah sent an e-mail saying, ‘I’m a student at Tall Oaks. I’m really interested in plant science and agriculture, and I’m curious if there are any opportunities to gain research experience,’ ” said Wisser. “Her e-mail was quite extensive about her interest and her passion. It’s rare for a high school student to have such a focused interest on plants and agriculture.”
Jo applied for the internship and after an interview with Wisser and Teclemariam Weldekidan, a scientist in the department, she got the internship and spent six weeks in the fields out on the UD farm working with maize which she said was a great experience. As part of the program, students also tour local institutes including Fraunhofer’s Center for Molecular Biotechnology and the Delaware Biotechnology Institute, providing the group with a broad perspective about plant science research.
“The first couple of weeks were grueling,” Jo said. “It was very, very hot. There were basic things like weeding but also doing cross pollinations and learning how a breeding project worked. The projects included research on maize disease resistance and environmental adaptation to temperate climates.”
As a figure skater and a member of UD’s Figure Skating Club, Jo had become familiar with the neighboring College of Agriculture and Natural Resources where she volunteered a year earlier with the UD Botanic Gardens (UDBG).
Training all day inside as a figure skater, Jo was looking for something to do outside with plants and was put in touch with Valann Budishak, UDBG volunteer coordinator and a Cooperative Extension Agent, and spent time volunteering in the summer.
“It was great because I did all of that same work at home, but I was doing it on a larger scale with other people,” Jo said. “The other volunteers were there for the same reason: their love for plants and gardening. Some were Master Gardeners while others enjoyed gardening as a hobby. Learning from them and learning from Val was great.”
After working at the UDBG, Jo realized that if she wanted to pursue a degree in plant science, she should explore plant science research more in depth.
In addition to learning research techniques and getting hands-on experience in the field, Jo was also able to get experience writing a research paper with Wisser serving as her mentor. As part of her application requirement to the Global Youth Institute, the paper needed to be focused on a topic concerning food security in a developing country.
Wisser introduced Jo to Susan Gachara, a Borel Global Fellow master’s student from Kenya, and Jo chose to focus on maize lethal necrosis disease for her paper, a disease caused by a combination of two viruses that is prevalent in many parts of Kenya and neighboring countries.
“I focused on that disease and how plant breeding can be used to solve that epidemic,” Jo said. “I wrote the paper, submitted it and was selected to attend the conference as a delegate for Delaware.”
At the conference, Jo was able to interact with about 200 students from across the United States and other countries, participate in activities and interact with world leaders in agriculture, such as Gebisa Ejeta, the 2009 World Food Prize Laureate who happened to be on the panel that critiqued Jo’s presentation.
“She presented her work with great poise and overall did an exceptional job,” said Wisser, who accompanied Jo to the conference. “The Laurette said something of the effect to her, ‘One of my questions is whether you’d be willing to skip your undergraduate program and come work for me as a graduate assistant.’ ”
Jo said she had a positive experience at the conference and working with Wisser.
“He’s been so supportive of everything and really helped me through the process of getting to Iowa for the Global Youth Institute and all throughout my internship with him this summer,” Jo said. “Right now, I’m trying to apply for an international internship for this upcoming summer and he has been helping me through that entire process as well. It’s been great.”
Article by Adam Thomas
Photos by Monica Moriak
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