As the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Summer Institute comes to a close, this year’s participants, Bianca Riddick and Walker Jones, are heading home having completed research projects and gotten a feel for the UD campus.
“I think it’s going to be bittersweet,” said Riddick. “I’m going to miss it when I’m ready to go home. It’s grown on me.”
The 10-week Summer Institute is designed for underrepresented populations of undergraduate students who have an interest in pursuing graduate degrees in the agricultural and natural resource sciences. It is intended to provide these students with an opportunity to learn about the varied and exciting opportunities available in graduate education at the college.
Riddick, who will be a junior at Norfolk (Va.) State University as a pre-med student majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry, said that her time at the Summer Institute was instructive as she conducted research for the first time on a subject out of her normal area of study: rice.
“I never thought I’d be working with rice,” said Riddick. “I really don’t care too much for rice, but some people depend on rice so it’s good to contribute to the research of this disease.”
The disease in question is known as “rice blast” and Riddick studied the interaction between the rice blast fungus and a bacterium that has the potential to be a bio-control agent for the disease. Specifically, Riddick looked at a handful of fungal genes in rice blast to see how they react — if they turn on or off — to the bacterium in order to get a better idea of how the disease-causing agent is defending itself against the bio-control agent.
The reason behind looking for a bio-control solution to the rice blast problem is that it has the potential to be more cost efficient and environmentally friendly than applying pesticides.
Riddick is studying in the laboratory of Nicole Donofrio, who said that she has been amazed at how quickly Riddick picks things up, especially since this is her first time conducting research.
Donofrio, assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, said of Riddick, “she is one of those people who just gets it. A lot of people, when they first start research, and this was the case with me too when I was an undergrad, have a pretty shallow learning curve. I had to make a lot of mistakes and Bianca is a rare student because she retains all of this information we’re throwing at her on the first try.”
Donofrio said that she has been so impressed with Riddick this year that she is going to ask her to come back next summer.
Riddick said that she has really enjoyed her time at the Summer Institute, calling it “a really good experience. It has everything laid out for you, you just have to come here and give your time. And I think that it’s a really good eye-opener.”
She also said that she has enjoyed the UDairy Creamery, with her favorite flavor being Cookies and Cream.
Like Riddick, Jones also had to conduct research in an area outside of his wheelhouse.
As a senior at Virginia State University, Jones studies agricultural business and economics, but he spent the summer with Kent Messer helping him conduct a study on how beachgoers at Cape Henlopen and Rehoboth Beach would behave if there were offshore energy production providing renewable or lower energy costs but also affecting the aesthetics of the beach.
While conducting a study on the beach may sound like a summer job that is every undergraduate’s dream, Messer explained that Jones’ job was tougher than it sounds.
“This is actually really hard work. Going to the beach sounds really fun until you spend six days standing on the beach being told, ‘No, we will not participate in your study.’ And it’s 95 degrees, and you’re sweating and your relief is that you get to go hang out inside of a tent,” said Messer, associate professor in the Department of Applied Economics and Statistics.
Messer said that Jones was integral in getting the study conducted, as he conversed directly with state officials from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, getting the permission for the group to set up their tent at Cape Henlopen. Messer credited Jones with securing a “great spot” for the research project and said that it was a huge help to be able to give Jones such a high level of responsibility.
The research project involved having a computer simulation show participants images of wind turbines and oil drilling platforms as options for offshore energy. The participants were able to move the turbines or platforms closer or farther away from the beach, with the idea being that the closer the objects got, especially the wind turbines, the energy costs would be lower but the aesthetics of the beach would be affected.
Jones said that the group found that more people were open to the idea of having wind turbines present and closer to the shore, rather than oil platforms. “The (Gulf of Mexico) oil spill tragedy is still ringing true with some people and they don’t want that to happen again so when they see the picture of an oil platform they’d say, ‘No, I don’t like it,’” said Jones.
Jones said that he has enjoyed his time at UD, especially the fact that there are so many researchers on campus conducting a wide range of research in different departments.
He also said that he “really enjoyed how cooperative things went here, and how easily approachable the administration is around here.”
Tom Sims, CANR deputy dean and the T.A. Baker Professor of Plant and Soil Science, said that the Summer Institute was launched four years ago to “provide outstanding students such as Walker and Bianca with the opportunity to work with faculty mentors and learn more about graduate education in the agricultural and natural resource sciences.”
Sims continued that many of the 16 Summer Institute participants have “since entered graduate or professional schools both at UD and other top graduate programs. I’m sure that Walker’s exposure to the exciting new field of experimental economics and Bianca’s experiences in plant molecular biology have better prepared them for similar opportunities — we wish them well and look forward to continuing to work with similar dedicated students in the future.”
Article by Adam Thomas
Photos by Danielle Quigley and courtesy Kent Messer
This article can also be viewed on UDaily.