What is a key way to build a stronger U.S. scientific community for the future? By expanding learning opportunities to a broad range of interested students now.
That goal is the foundation for a well-rounded science education program in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources this summer.
The 10-week program, with the theme “Expanding Opportunities in Agricultural Sciences and Crop-to-Food Innovation,” has brought together Husker scientists and private-sector experts to provide a wide-ranging curriculum to select undergraduate students from Nebraska and across the country. The project’s recruitment included historically Black colleges and universities, including those created under the 1890 Second Morrill Act, to extend opportunities to underrepresented students in science- and agriculture-related careers.
“We’ve learned how to communicate science better and how to think more scientifically and about the scientific method,” said Nathlita Karnley, a biology major at Fayetteville State University, an HBCU in North Carolina. “You really learn about science and the impact of your project. You learn how it’s going to benefit society. It also can help you regarding framing your business, if you want a business.”
Each student is mentored by an IANR faculty member. Karnley’s mentor is microbiologist Jennifer Auchtung, assistant professor of food science and technology.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture provided a $742,000 grant to the university for the program, known as Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates. IANR will host the program for five summers. Six students are participating this summer, and 46 will participate over the course of the program.
“Expanding opportunities is really important,” said Ed Cahoon, George W. Holmes Professor of biochemistry and the project’s principal investigator. “A lot of students, especially from HBCUs and 1890 land-grant universities, may not have the opportunities that some other students do to consider research as a career.”
For some of the students, this is their first chance for focused laboratory research, for example.
The country’s scientific community can benefit by working to remove some of the barriers to pursuing science as a career, said Cahoon, director of the Center for Plant Science Innovation.
Students have had sessions on science literacy, research fundamentals and science communication skills. Faculty and graduate students are leading mentored laboratory experiences. Sessions explain research-project commercialization and entrepreneurship. Private-sector experts describe opportunities for science-focused employment in industry.
The program expands educational opportunities for “students who think they might be interested in pursuing research, going to grad school or having a career in agriculture and agricultural sciences,” said Amanda Ramer-Tait, Maxcy Professor of Agriculture and Natural Resources with Nebraska’s Department of Food Science and Technology. “I’m excited we can provide these opportunities for students to find out if it’s something that they’re passionate about.”
The sessions give students “tools to plan a path forward for themselves,” she said, “and give them the opportunity to see themselves as being successful as members of the agricultural sciences community.”
Ramer-Tait is co-principal investigator for the program, along with Paul Velander, assistant professor of biochemistry and Nebraska Extension specialist.
“You’re really building up students, both from the very fundamental level — in the wet lab space, how to think through a scientific lens, science literacy — but also mentoring them to think clearly and to pursue what their interests are,” Velander said. “The program also gives them context about science and business and entrepreneurialism.”
Students have learned about research commercialization and business dimensions from Tom Field, director of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program at Nebraska; Josh Nichol-Caddy, director of technology commercialization with the College of Business Administration at the University of Nebraska at Omaha; and Matt Foley, program director at Invest Nebraska and program director at The Combine, an ag-tech incubator.
Each Wednesday, students have lunches in which industry experts describe science-focused professions in the private sector. At one lunch, students visited the genomics labs at the Neogen facility in Lincoln.
Even if students don’t decide to pursue graduate school in the sciences, Velander said, the program helps them see the relevance of strong scientific understanding across a wide range of professions.
In addition, Velander said, the program is helping IANR graduate students and postdoctoral researchers hone their mentoring skills as they help the students.
Husker faculty pursued the grant in part because the transdisciplinary collaboration among IANR departments and research centers provides promising opportunities for students to see the many connections among scientific disciplines. That discussion began, Ramer-Tait said, in the wake of the “many collaborations faculty have across our campus that revolve around novel innovations with food crops and the eventual incorporation of those novel crops into novel food products that could benefit human health.”
The program, with its “Crop-to-Food Innovation” focus, is a collaboration among the Center for Plant Science Innovation, Nebraska Food for Health Center, Food Innovation Center and Industrial Agricultural Products Center. Participating faculty are from the departments of biochemistry, agronomy and horticulture, food science and technology, and biological systems engineering.
The summer sessions and lab experience, Cahoon said, are “designed to give students the perspective of where their food comes from, starting from the crop going through all the stages in between — bioprocessing, formulations, nutritional evaluation — and, at the end, how a novel food product can be developed and marketed.”
Dulcie Archuleta, a biology major at Nebraska Wesleyan University, has been encouraged by her lab work, with Ramer-Tait as her mentor.
“I enjoyed my lab so much that I’m definitely considering grad school at UNL,” Archuleta said. “I really like working in my lab and would want to come back, probably, to continue my work.”
Gannon Cole, a chemistry major at West Virginia State University, an 1890 land-grant HBCU, said he intends to pursue graduate study and a science-related career.
“I know the value of research and internships that provide you with experience you otherwise would not have,” said Cole, who is mentored by Cahoon.
Such experience “can take you a long way, and that’s what a lot of employers tend to look for in a person.”
The program has significant value in providing lab experience and connections with faculty and experts, said Shane Rice, a biological engineering major at North Carolina A&T State University, an HBCU. His program mentor is Ozan Ciftci, Kenneth E. Morrison Distinguished Professor of Food Engineering.
Other students in the program are Deuris Pena, a biochemistry major at Bloomfield College in New Jersey. His mentor is Thomas Clemente, Eugene W. Price Distinguished Professor of Biotechnology in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture. WrayVauze Givens, an agricultural studies major at Lincoln University, an HBCU in Missouri, is mentored by Devin Rose, professor of food science and technology.
The wide range of subjects addressed by the sessions is important in giving students a full sense of modern scientific inquiry and practice, Raimer-Tait said.
“We’re training the next generation of scientists, and we want to train them to be outstanding scientists, but we also want them to have training in entrepreneurial ideas and techniques as well as being comfortable communicating their science,” she said. “That’s so important as we train the next generation.”
In sum, Cahoon said, this project provides “a great opportunity to impact the lives and careers of students and to promote participation of a greater diversity of people and ideas that are needed to solve global challenges.”