Ask Donald Seifrit, Jr., what he does as a University of Delaware Extension Scholar and he hesitates before answering. It isn’t easy to sum up all the tasks he has taken on during this summer-long internship program.
Under the direction of Carrie Murphy, a horticulture agent in the New Castle County Extension office, he might start his morning by identifying fungus on a cherry branch or insect holes on a tomato leaf. He’ll then contact the gardener who dropped off the plant or insect sample and suggest solutions to the problem.
In the afternoon, he may head to a UD greenhouse where he’s working on three different research projects with Richard Taylor, an Extension agronomy specialist. Seifrit has been busy evenings and weekends, too, at events ranging from a farmers’ field meeting in Middletown to preparing for a community garden workshop in the Southbridge section of Wilmington.
The Extension Scholar program gives students and recent grads the opportunity to gain real-world experience as interns with UD Cooperative Extension.
Jan Seitz, former associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and director of UD Cooperative Extension, created the program, which is supported by an endowment fund established by Dover growers Chet and Sally Dickerson.
“I’d like to work in industry, initially, but I also think it could be rewarding to get my teaching certification and be a high school agriculture or biology teacher,” says Seifrit, who graduated in June with a plant science degree. “The Extension Scholar program is giving me a taste of careers in which I could use my plant science degree.”
Andy Kness is another Extension Scholar with a new plant science degree from UD. Kness knows he wants to be a researcher and will be back in the classroom in September, pursuing a master’s degree in plant science. In the meantime, he’s working with Cooperative Extension entomologist Brian Kunkel.
One valuable lesson Kness has already learned is that research doesn’t always go smoothly. Take, for example, a stink bug project that he and Kunkel had planned to tackle this summer.
“It’s a dud; there’s nothing to talk about right now,” says Kunkel. That’s because the brown marmorated stink bug – that nonnative stink bug that has caused crop loss and landscape damage in Delaware – is in remarkably short supply this summer.
That’s good news for homeowners and farmers, not so good if you’re trying to evaluate the effectiveness of insecticides against the stink bug as well as the natural enemies that attack this pest. Kunkel and other UD researchers want to be able to present solutions when the stink bug does make its inevitable return.
One recent morning, a few forlorn stink bugs munched leaves in a rearing container while Kunkel and Kness focused their attention on the insect that has kept them busy this summer – red-headed flea beetles.
“These critters chew holes in plants and can cause significant destruction to nursery plants,” says Kness. “It’s not really a problem for homeowners as much as it for nurserymen. They can’t sell plants with flea beetle damage even though these plants aren’t really damaged and will look fine in their second season.”
Kness is assisting Kunkel with a project that could provide an environmentally sustainable way to control this beetle. The answer may lie in a tiny white worm, more formally known as entomopathogenic nematode. This parasitic worm attacks the larvae of the red-headed flea beetle by releasing bacteria that eventually kills it.
Two weeks ago, Kness introduced these worms into petri dishes filled with red-headed flea beetles to evaluate their usefulness. Next up, he and Kunkel will replicate the experiment in greenhouse plants and then out in the field.
Six students were named Extension Scholars this summer. The other interns have been working with military youth at Dover Air Force Base, developing State Fair programs, teaching 4-H equine camps and assisting with honey production at the UD apiary.
“I wish there had been something like this program when I was in school,” says Murphy. “I think it’s a fantastic way for students to learn job skills while gaining an understanding of the role that Extension plays in the community and the wide range of things that we do.”
Article by Margo McDonough
Photo by Danielle Quigley
This article can also be viewed on UDaily.