UD students look at possible contamination of irrigation water

November 21, 2013 under CANR News

students look for contaminants in irrigation waterStudents in the University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) are using a plot of land on the campus farm to help study possible contaminants in soil and irrigation water used to grow leafy greens and tomatoes in order to help inform new regulations on growers that will be going into effect next year as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

The study is part of a $9 million U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Specialty Crops Research Initiative (SCRI) grant titled “Developing Consensus Produce Safety Metrics for Leafy Greens and Tomatoes.” The project is led by the University of Maryland and is taking place at seven different universities and industry liaisons across the country.

Signed into law in 2011 by President Barack Obama, the food safety act has been implemented in stages over the past two years.

Kali Kniel, associate professor of animal and food sciences, explained that part of the law includes regulations for growers of fruits and vegetables, noting that this is the first time there have ever been specific regulations for growing fruits and vegetables.

“There have been guidelines and marketing agreements before but not regulations in terms of environmental aspects that are difficult to control,” Kniel said, “so growers are anxious and nervous about this.”

The rules are not yet finalized and include some fairly complicated aspects in terms of metrics, use of irrigation water and soil amendments. Delaware extension agents have been working with growers over the past two years to make the transition more manageable.

To help inform these regulations, researchers from the seven universities will meet with representatives of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to report on their findings.

UD research team

At UD, the research team used a plot of land next to the Allen Laboratory and has been growing tomatoes, romaine lettuce and spinach on the plot for the past two years.

Angela Ferelli, a senior double majoring in biochemistry and food science, worked on the project during the first summer and said that it was interesting to get hands-on experience outside of the lab.

Because it was her first time working in a garden and growing plants for a project, she said that it was a “labor of love. We really wanted to tackle it head on and we didn’t know what the best way was to keep the weeds out and keep the plants growing and happy. And if you looked down the rows the first time we planted, we had four rows — they started out straight and then they went crooked, but you could definitely tell that we were doing it, and it was great.”

Ferelli said that the next year, the group tested a new variable plasticulture for tomatoes, putting down plastic tarps to keep the weeds out. This is also a means of potential control for splash from rainfall for growing produce and for the protection from plant contact with soil.

Patrick Spanninger, a doctoral student in Kniel’s lab who has been working on the project since the beginning, explained that after the students grew the plants, they ran trials by pouring water mixed with manure that contained different levels of E. coli on the plants to monitor bacterial persistence on the fruit. “We wanted to see if the bacteria in the manure that we started with survived after we put it on the plants,” said Spanninger. This is a controlled way modeling how irrigation water may become naturally contaminated in real-life situations.

The students then harvested the tomatoes and leafy greens by hand and used random sampling strategies to look at the levels of generic E. coli on the plants.

Explaining that because the outdoors is a complicated, unsterile environment, Kniel said that they tested for generic E. coli because it is an indicator organism, meaning that if increased levels of generic E. coli show up, there could be a potential risk associated with the irrigation water. This is the current industry standard and part of a grower’s best practices.

The problem with rain

Another part of the research on which the students worked was the development of water safety metrics to help decide how many generic bacteria — nonpathogenic bacteria — can be found in water used for irrigation.

students look for contaminants in rain water“They’re associating the levels of bacteria in the water with climactic changes with rainfall and wind and relative humidity and temperatures to try and understand what puts produce at risk for having higher bacterial levels or potential pathogens,” said Kniel.

Ultimately, Kniel said that rainfall more than anything else poses a problem for growers when it comes to bacterial contamination on fruit that may have originated in irrigation water. Using DNA fingerprint analysis on the recovered E. coli, Spanninger was able to trace bacteria coming from the manure through the tomatoes on different plants.

“We actually are seeing that the initial amounts of generic bacteria in the water are not really the biggest issue. Bacterial decay on plants occurs within a couple of days. Rainfall seems to really affect fresh produce,” Kniel said. “We think that rain close to harvest dates is an important consideration and should be part of a Food Safety Plan, so we’re sharing with the FDA that aspects other than strict water metrics should be considered. At this time meeting the water standards the FDA is suggesting is difficult for produce growers around the country, in particular those that use surface water for irrigation.”

Spanninger agreed with that assessment. “From what we saw, the greatest influence on bacterial presence and persistence was big rain events, which we’ve been getting more of in recent years.” He explained that the research was conducted last fall during Hurricane Sandy and in the summer when the area was doused with a large amount of rainfall.

Spanninger also added that possible contamination from animals — such as geese, dogs, and groundhogs in the field — is another issue that the group is investigating. Wildlife intrusion into produce fields is an important area of study along with irrigation water standards.

In addition to looking for E. coli, the group — along with the research teams at other universities involved in the project — also set out to identify potential hot spots for growers, areas where they would have the most success growing crops without high risk of contamination.

Ferelli explained, “The overarching implications of this research are going to be for the growers to be able to have a better grip on where the risk is in the field. So if a grower goes out now with this risk in mind and he or she see’s there has been a rain event, or observes that an animal has come in and left it’s signature, instead of just taking out that one plant that has been affected, the grower will be better equipped with knowledge to recognize the possibility to section off several plants in that area.’”

Article by Adam Thomas

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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UD plant and soil sciences researcher receives two USDA grants

October 7, 2013 under CANR News

Yan Jin is awarded two USDA grantsThe University of Delaware’s Yan Jin has received two awards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for her studies on wetlands waters and for cross-disciplinary research on fresh produce and microbial contaminants.

The funding for both projects is being provided through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Initiative (AFRI) Competitive Grants Program.

Jin, professor of soil science and an environmental physicist in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) said the four-year wetlands project is funded under AFRI’s Renewable Energy, Natural Resources and Environment program area and is titled “Colloid Mobilization and Biogeochemical Cycling of Organic Carbon, Nitrogen and Phosphorous in Wetlands.”

This is a new collaboration developed with Bruce Vasilas, UD professor of plant and soil sciences and a hydric soil scientist with extensive research experience in wetland hydrology and water chemistry.

The project design incorporates extensive sampling of both ground and surface waters at three wetland sites with complementary laboratory experiments.

Wetlands are vital components to the ecosystem because they can remove nutrients and pollutants before those can enter downstream waters. Jin’s research will ultimately focus on how the mobilization of colloidal particles within the soil can influence the transport, retention and cycling of essential nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and dissolved organic matter.

A comprehensive assessment of wetlands and a clear understanding of their geochemical and hydrological mechanisms controlling nutrient retention/removal and carbon cycling is valuable in developing integrated management strategies of water resources at the urban-ecological interface.

Jin said she is very excited about the opportunity to team with Vasilas, who is a nationally recognized expert on wetlands and has well-established field sites for which long-term monitoring data of hydrological, water chemistry and soil properties are already available.

She is confident that their work will generate a better understanding of the role colloids might play in natural wetlands in the cycling of essential nutrients and carbon.

“We are a nice match in terms of us having very different skills. My expertise is in the lab while his is in the field,” said Jin. “By working together and combining field measurements and laboratory investigations we will understand things each one of us individually could not understand as well.”

Produce research

The second grant, awarded by AFRI’s Food Safety, Nutrition, and Health Program, evaluates the processes contributing to the microbial contamination of fresh produce. “Receiving this award is very encouraging, and a bit surprising because this is the first time we applied and we are being funded by a program that is outside of our discipline. The project is a new cross-discipline attempt to link environmental physics to the field of food safety,” Jin said.

With the increasing association of food-borne illness outbreaks with fruits and vegetables, the mechanisms allowing pathogens to attach and colonize on these surfaces has come into question. The goal of the project will be to link crop surface properties, physics of small-scale water organization and subsequent nutrient availability with the attachment, growth and colonization of bacteria.

The three-year project will be a joint effort with two young scientists, Volha Lazouskaya, a former Ph.D. student and postdoctoral researcher in Jin’s group, and Gang Wang, who will join Jin’s group early next year from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

John Xiao, professor of physics in UD’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, and Kali Kniel, professor of food microbiology in CANR’s Department of Animal and Food Sciences, will also participate in the project. The goal of this research is to provide insight to improve risk assessment methods and pathogen control protocols of produce contamination.

Jin’s work takes a systematic approach and applies physics and colloidal theories. “In this project, we will apply our knowledge of colloid/bacteria attachment and transport processes in porous media to understand how microbial pathogens attach and colonize to fruit and vegetable surfaces,” she said. “We will use natural produce surfaces and create model surfaces using state-of-the-art nanofabrication techniques to mimic surface features such as roughness, hydrophobicity and water distribution, which affects bacterial attachment, colonization and growth.

“We will compare those properties across different produces to evaluate their vulnerability to pathogenic contamination. We also expect to develop a computational model, which will provide a quantitative and predictive tool for addressing the key biophysical factors influencing bacterial attachment, survival and colonization on fresh produce.”

Although Jin’s office is currently located in Townsend Hall, she soon will be making the move to UD’s new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory (ISE Lab), where she will utilize state of the art technologies during her projects.

Research group

The Jin group’s general research interest is in measurement, modeling and interpretation of mass and energy flow and transformation in soil and groundwater. A special focus in the last decade has been on the behavior of colloids, microscopic particles that include natural soil mineral and organic particles, manufactured nanoparticles, and biocolloids or viruses and bacteria.

The basic and systematic nature of their investigation on the mechanisms of colloid mobilization, attachment, and transport from their previous research built a strong foundation that led to the award of the two new NIFA grants. The new projects will allow Jin’s group and their collaborators to apply their fundamental knowledge of colloid behavior to address larger scale environmental issues and to new systems they had never worked with before.

Article by Angela Carcione

Photo by Danielle Quigley

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Students find poultry career opportunities at the International Production and Processing Expo

May 24, 2013 under CANR News

Students found out about Poultry careers at the IPPE expoStudents from the University of Delaware interested in the poultry industry walked away with a lot more than information and a great experience at the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association’s International Production and Processing Expo (IPPE) held in Atlanta, Georgia. Some even walked away with job offers.

UD sent 11 students to the event as well as Kali Kniel, associate professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences (ANFS). This year, the IPPE set record attendance numbers with over 25,000 visitors and over 1,000 exhibitors. The expo is the world’s largest annual poultry, meat and feed industry event of its kind and one of the 50 largest trade shows in the United States.

The students had most of their travel expenses covered thanks to a grant received by U.S. Poultry and Egg and also some funding from the UD Career Services Center.

The event was a culmination of UD’s Poultry Careers Seminar Series that the students participated in during the 2012 fall semester. The seminar series was organized by Bob Alphin, instructor in ANFS and manager of the Allen Laboratory, and Kniel, and students learned about the many different opportunities afforded to them by the poultry industry from leading industry professionals, with representatives from Perdue Farms, the Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. and Mountaire Farms—among others—coming in to speak with the student participants.

As for the trip itself, Kniel said that she felt like it was a great learning experience for the students.

“I think that was a really good way to boost their interest and learn about the allied industries and the kind of depth in the careers that are available with poultry,” explained Kniel. “Because it’s not just working with live birds and it’s not just working in a processing plant, it’s really all the careers in health and production and it’s just a very broad scope.”

Caryn Deakyne, a senior in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), who attended the program, said that the expo, “Completely opened my eyes up to the countless opportunities in the poultry industry as well as other related fields. By attending this expo I was able to really hone in on the specific jobs that I was looking for and spend the most time focusing on them.”

Deakyne added that Kniel was a great person to have on the trip as she was “such a supportive resource, and she even helped push me towards companies that I was nervous to speak with.”

The students got first hand experience with job interviews, as they were able to interview with many companies during the 3-day program.

Nina Lee, a senior in CANR who went on the trip, explained that the interviews were fast paced, set up in 30-minute increments, and took place with leading industry companies such as Perdue Farms, Mountaire Farms, Butterball and Boar’s Head, among others.

Lee said that she found the interviewing process to be the most beneficial aspect of the trip. “I thought I was astute and well poised before interviews, but after interviewing in Atlanta I learned so many tricks and subtle ways to appear more collected, confident, and eloquent. I became a lot more comfortable and was able to read the interviewer’s questions and responses, while answering with concise but well-thought out answers. Essentially, I learned how to genuinely market myself while showing my professionalism and poise.”

Kniel said that every senior who went on the trip walked away with a job offer from one of the leading producers in the poultry industry. She also encouraged students to look into careers in poultry as she said “Careers in the poultry industry are basically recession proof. The companies are continuing to do well, people eat, food is still being produced, and the health of the animals is still important.”

She also noted that the expo is fantastic as “it’s such a friendly environment. Everyone was very warm, very friendly and very excited to meet the students and to talk about the careers and the positions that they had available. There was a lot of enthusiasm.”

As for Deakyne, she said that the trip played a large part in her recent acceptance of a full-time position with Perdue Farms, Inc., and that she will be entering their plant management trainee program in June in Georgetown, Delaware.

Lee has also accepted a position as a plant management trainee with Perdue Farms in their Milford, Delaware processing plant.

Article by Adam Thomas

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High school students explore College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

October 22, 2012 under CANR News

High school students interested in studying food science, plant and soil science and poultry science at the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) had a chance to take a closer look at those fields on Friday, Oct. 12, as part of the college’s Exploration Day.

The day started with a continental breakfast in the Townsend Hall Commons followed by a reception at which professors from the departments welcomed the students to the college.

Among those were Blake Meyers, the Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences and chair of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, and Jack Gelb, professor and chair of the Department of Animal and Food Sciences.

Meyers talked about the diverse areas of expertise in the plant and soil sciences department, with professors working in areas ranging from horticulture to landscape design to sequencing plant DNA. “It’s a remarkable department for the range of expertise that we have and we have wonderful student to faculty ratios,” said Meyers. “We have a relatively small undergraduate program, and a larger graduate program in some respects, so that really affords a lot of opportunities for one on one interactions between students and faculty and a lot of research opportunities, and of course a lot of those opportunities lead to internships and lead to jobs later on.”

Gelb spoke to the parents and students about the plethora of job opportunities available to them in the agriculture and natural resources field. “Colleges of agriculture and natural resources generally graduate 30,000 students a year across this nation but really, we need about 50,000 to 60,000,”said Gelb. “There are many job opportunities, so I think this is good news for the parents and the students alike, especially when you’re making a big commitment for that college education.”

After a presentation on admissions and scholarships by Heidi Mulherin, UD admissions counselor, the students divided into three groups — one for students interested in food science, one for plant science and one for poultry science.

The food science students got to visit the UDairy Creamery in the morning, where they tried their hand at making ice cream and participated in an ice cream taste test. In the afternoon, they had lessons on topics such as food packaging and investigating a foodborne illness outbreak.

The plant and soil science students learned about suburban landscaping with Sue Barton, associate professor of plant and soil science; toured the Fischer Greenhouse and the UD Botanic Gardens with David Frey, associate professor and assistant chair of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences; and explored a plant cell with Janine Sherrier, professor of plant and soil sciences at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute.

As for the poultry science students, they had a chance to tour the Allen Laboratory in the morning, and in the afternoon, they learned about avian histopathology for disease diagnosis from Erin Brannick, assistant professor of animal and food sciences and director of the CANR Comparative Pathology Laboratory, and investigated a foodborne illness outbreak with Kali Kniel, associate professor of animal and food sciences.

The three groups had lunch together in the Townsend Hall Commons before breaking off for panel discussions with current UD students and alumni from their respective areas of interest.

Latoya Watson, academic adviser at CANR, said of the event, “Exploration Day is designed to introduce high school students to some of our science-based majors in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Students participate in hands-on activities so that they can get a better understanding of their majors of interest. For example, depending on the track students choose, ‘student explorers’ may find themselves touring our Biosafety Level 3 avian research facility, performing activities that simulate a foodborne illness outbreak or even traveling inside plant cells by using some of the most high tech microscopes. These are unique experiences that we hope give them more insight into their intended fields of study.”

Patrick McDonough, a student interested in plant science who manages his own vegetable garden at his home in New Jersey, said that he was looking forward to touring the Fischer Greenhouse.

Caroline Coffee was one of the students who participated in Exploration Day, and she said that she enjoyed touring the Allen Laboratory and getting to see the chickens. “I’ve never held a chicken before and never worked with chickens,” said Coffee. “That was just a really cool experience for me.”

Coffee, who is interested in studying veterinary medicine, said that she also enjoyed learning more about virology and getting to tour the CANR facilities. “The facilities are definitely impressive and if I decided to go here and get accepted, knowing what I would have as far as the hands-on things and the opportunities for my education was really cool.”

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Danielle Quigley

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UD students and professors learn from Amish about sustainable agriculture

September 28, 2012 under CANR News

University of Delaware students and professors took a trip over the summer to visit an Amish family in Dover to learn about sustainable agriculture practices. The trip was co-sponsored by UD’s Department of Animal and Food Sciences and the Society of Natural History of Delaware.

“While conventional agriculture is the means in which we supply millions of people with affordable food, some feel that the majority of these practices are not sustainable,” said Kali Kniel associate professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences, who went along on the trip.

At the farm, the group, which included members from Delaware State University, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) and members of the Delaware community, learned about how the family cans their own vegetables, fruit and poultry. The vegetables and poultry used in this process are grown and raised on the farm, and the family uses these canning practices to help store their food for the winter.

Al Matlack, adjunct professor in chemistry and biochemistry, who also went on the trip explained that the family designed and built their house themselves and that no electric lines enter the house, with “propane tanks outside providing energy for a gas stove and a gas refrigerator. For light over the table in the living-dining room, they pull a cord on a battery-powered lamp.” He also explained that the Amish “make their own clothes from purchased cloth, which may contain synthetic fibers.”

The group then traveled to visit an Amish furniture store to see the fine craftsmanship of Amish woodworking. There they discovered that a lot of the furniture—made of solid cherry, oak, walnut and hickory–is shipped in from Ohio and made from whole pieces of wood.

Wrapping up the day, the group visited Detweilers farm and toured their large vegetable farms and apiary. The farmers at Detweilers raise sheep and chickens, which produce fresh eggs for the farm. The group talked with the farmers about erosion prevention, crop rotation, food preservation and livestock welfare.

Matlack explained that the water used to irrigate their garden is provided by a well and compressed air, and that their indoor plumbing is supplied by a windmill.

Kniel said that the trip was very enjoyable and showed that sustainable agriculture can still take place in the 21st century. “This trip highlights the fact that we can all take part in sustainable agriculture whether it is through our own garden, shopping at farmers markets, or by canning fresh-picked peaches.”

Article by Adam Thomas

 

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University of Delaware holds inaugural One World, One Health symposium

August 23, 2012 under CANR News

The University of Delaware held its inaugural One World, One Health animal, human and environmental health symposium, titled “Global Thinking for the Greater Good: Interdisciplinary Health Discourse and Research,” in the Townsend Hall Commons on Wednesday, Aug. 22.

The event was sponsored by the UD College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), the College of Health Sciences (CHS) and the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN) in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS).

The day started off with two concurrent morning sessions running from 9-11:30 a.m. The first, titled “Plugging In,” dealt with regional interdisciplinary health efforts and outlined ways in which University departments and individual researchers can “plug in” to ongoing and future projects.

Speakers included Karl Steiner, senior provost of research development for the Research Office; Kathy Matt, dean of the College of Health Sciences; and Bob MacDonald, coordinator for partnerships and grants at USDA-ARS.

Steiner spoke about the importance of having multiple principal investigators on research projects, noting that National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for multi-principal investigator projects has gone up 29 percent in recent years, while funding for single principal investigator projects has gone up only 7 percent. He noted that the NSF mirrors a national trend toward awarding multiple-principal investigator projects.

Steiner said that pilot funding is available for researchers through the University and statewide, with programs such as the Delaware Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), supported by NSF, and the Delaware IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE), supported by the National Institutes of Health.

He said that with more than 60 academic departments and schools and numerous institutes spread across the University, there is a need for collaboration between researchers.

Steiner also stressed that in the jungle of securing competitive grants, it is important for researchers to “use all the help you can get” and to “work with colleagues to do something innovative, because if you’re doing the same thing that somebody else is doing,” you won’t succeed.

Interdisciplinary work

Matt discussed the interdisciplinary opportunities available at UD specifically through the Delaware Health Sciences Alliance (DHSA) and the future opportunities that will be available at the Science, Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) Campus. Matt said it is important to not limit partnerships but to expand them, and spoke to researchers about the importance of pilot funding to help show initial results with their work.

“The challenge is when you have a new idea and you have to partner with other people, you don’t have a track record,” said Matt. “That’s why in every situation I’ve been in, seed funds, angel funds — these pilot funds — are greatly important so you can get together, get the data, get your publications, get an abstract, get your presentations and you can show that, ‘This isn’t fictitious, I didn’t just write this on the proposal, we’re already working together and we have some data and we know that we can do this.’”

Matt also talked about successful collaboration projects at CHS, such as the “babies driving robots” program that is a collaboration between the Department of Physical Therapy and the Department of Mechanical Engineering, as well as the possibility for future collaborations between UD departments and the community in general as afforded by the new STAR Campus.

Matt said it is hoped the campus will demonstrate “healthy living by design,” and said that will come about through a cooperative effort with the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

In the other concurrent morning session, “From Here to There: UD Graduate Student Resources and Career Planning,” speakers presented information on UD resources available to graduate students, career planning and the transition from graduate school to the workforce.

Next came lunch, which gave participants a chance to network with fellow researchers and look at research presentations on display.

Tips for researchers

From 1-3 p.m., there was a panel discussion titled “From Good to Grant,” which explored real world experiences and the logistics of developing and administering interdisciplinary research projects and grants.

The session was moderated by Leigh Botner, research development director for the Research Office, and panelists included:

  • Kali Kniel, associate professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences;
  • Manan Sharma, research microbiologist in the Environmental, Microbial, and Food Safety Laboratory (USDA ARS);
  • Steven Stanhope, professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Applied Physiology and lead scientist in the Bridging Advanced Development for Exceptional Rehabilitation (BADER) Consortium (CHS);
  • Carl Schmidt, professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences; and
  • Dan Flynn, associate dean of research (CHS).

Kniel said that it is important to know one’s personal strengths when working in a collaborative setting and that “patience is very important when dealing with different personalities.”

Schmidt stressed that talking to fellow researchers and going to meetings is very important, and said research should aim to have a broad impact. He also noted that it is important to establish a laboratory and get papers published as well as find people in the research field who complement you.

“My area of expertise is sequencing and bioinformatics and I knew that we had to use some quantitative genetics in my research and so I actively pursued one of the leading quantitative geneticists at Iowa State as part of this project,” said Schmidt, referencing a $4.7 million research grant he received through the Climate Change Initiative of the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) to study heat stress in poultry.

Flynn spoke about programmatic grants, saying that the three most important aspects of securing a programmatic grant are to have:

• A grant leader who has very strong credentials;

• A compelling vision, something that addresses an important issue that scientists and the people of the society are looking at and talking about, allowing regional assets to guide the growth of the research program, and;

• Strong credentials among the faculty who participate on the program and high quality of their ideas.

“That’s what’s going to drive this and get that grant funded,” he said.

Flynn also said that it is important to remember that as the leader of a research group, you need to help to advance the careers of everybody on that team. “At the end of the day, the real lasting legacy of leadership is the careers of the people that you advanced behind you and then that’s a culture of leadership that you pass on.”

The symposium closed with a poster session and refreshments from 3-5 p.m., with tours of the CANR farm and gardens also available at that time.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Danielle Quigley

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CANR announces 2012 Benton graduate student award winners

June 25, 2012 under CANR News

The University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) has announced the winners of the 2012 William J. Benton Graduate Student Awards. The 2012 recipients are Rachael Vaicunas, Jixian Zhai and Kirsten Hirneisen.

The awards were established in honor of William J. Benton, former CANR associate dean of research and professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences (ANFS).

Rachael Vaicunas

Vaicunas received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Department of Bioresources Engineering, and she said that studying in the department “was a great experience because it provided me with valuable skills that will be useful for my future as an engineer.”

She is researching water quality throughout the state of Delaware, specifically looking at “concentrations of hormones and antibiotics in surface waters across the state and how different land uses affect water quality.”

Vaicunas said that receiving the Benton Award has made her “feel like I brought value to the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.” She also wanted to acknowledge her graduate adviser, Shreeram Inamdar, associate professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences (PLSC), as she called him “a great mentor and motivator throughout my time at UD.”

Jixian Zhai

Zhai, a doctoral student in CANR, said his research focuses on understanding the roles of small RNA molecules in plant development and disease resistance. He conducts his research by utilizing high throughput sequencing technology, studying the small RNA molecules in a variety of plant species.

Zhai said that he is “really honored to receive this award and very grateful to the donors who always support graduate research in CANR. I believe this is an important step in my career and I am deeply motivated to live up to the expectation of this prestigious award.”

Zhai called his adviser, Blake Meyers, Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences and chair of the department, an “extraordinary adviser” and he wanted to thank Meyers for “all the guidance as well as the freedom that he gave me on my research.”

Kirsten Hirneisen

Hirneisen, also a doctoral student in CANR, said that receiving the Benton Award is “a great honor. Past recipients have been wonderful students and great scientists and it’s a wonderful feeling to be associated with them through this award.”

Hirneisen’s area of research is microbial food safety and she said that she enjoys working in the field because it encompasses many different areas. “As a food safety microbiologist; I get to be involved in all these areas to control hazards from the field to fork.”

Her doctoral research focuses on “the enteric viruses, including Hepatitis A Virus and human noroviruses, and their interactions with fresh produce in a field environment. The impacts of my research helps assess the risk of human pathogen contamination of produce and aids in the development of strategies to ensure a safe food supply.”

Hirneisen said that her adviser Kali Kniel, associate professor of ANFS, has been “a wonderful mentor to me and a great role model.”

Article by Adam Thomas

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University’s Kniel, Everts join study of produce safety

December 9, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Researchers at the University of Delaware are participating in a project that is focused on increasing produce safety and delivering more trustworthy salad fixings.

Total funding for the University of Maryland-led project amounts to $9 million, with $5.4 million in contributions coming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and substantial industry funds.

The three-year study promises to be one of the most comprehensive studies of fresh produce safety ever conducted.

Produce safety has been a hot topic ever since 2006, when a deadly batch of spinach killed three people and sickened hundreds of Americans. The project will involve extensive testing and data collection by industry, supplemented by field experiments involving eight other university and federal laboratories around the country.

Kali Kniel, associate professor in UD’s Department of Animal and Food Sciences, and Kathryne Everts, professor and Cooperative Extension specialist in plant pathology at Maryland with a joint appointment at UD, are part of the University of Delaware team.

“Since the large outbreak of E. coli in 2006 which was traced back to spinach grown in the Salinas Valley of California, produce commodities have been under great scrutiny,” Kniel said of the project. “As we all know fresh fruits and vegetables are grown outside, which puts them at great risk for coming in contact with biological hazards like pathogenic bacteria and viruses. There are some processes that growers and packers can do to reduce the risk but the science is still not there to completely understand what those are. This project will help to resolve that for very important and ‘high-risk’ products, including leafy greens and tomatoes.”

Kniel explained the role that she and Everts will play in the study, saying, “Dr. Everts and I will be working with the farmers and packers to both develop metrics and to disseminate the science-based results of the project.  I am particularly looking forward to working with regional growers and packers to help them deal with the food safety challenges including increased biological testing and best practices for safe compost and water use.”

Robert Buchanan, a University of Maryland professor and director of its Center for Food Safety and Security Systems, is heading the research initiative.

In addition to UD and Maryland, other universities involved include Ohio State University, Rutgers University, the University of California Davis, the University of Florida and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be involved in the research as well.

The initiative’s industry partners — representing more than 90 percent of the leafy greens and tomato production in the United States — will conduct about 200,000 separate tests during the project to measure the presence of pathogens.

“This project is very unique in that it has the support of the industry on a significant scale. We have a great team of scientists and great industry support,” Kniel said.

The research aims to create the scientific basis for detailed safe, hygienic practices in farming, packing, transporting and storing fresh produce.

The idea is to prevent water, air or ground sources of pathogen contamination by setting standards or benchmarks that can be applied in a variety of growing regions and countries.

The study will examine questions such as how far apart do you need to keep a lettuce patch from pigs or other farm animals to prevent bacterial contamination and what kinds of barriers are needed to prevent contaminated water from reaching crops?

Members of the research team said they believe the project will give regulators, farmers, packers and others along the supply chain the scientific and technological knowledge needed to develop and defend produce safety protocols, or “metrics” as the industry calls them.

At the production stage, the research will focus on air, water and other environmental factors related to potential contamination by pathogens; risks during harvesting, packing, and processing; as well as temperature and other handling concerns as produce moves to market.

Photos by Ambre Alexander

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UD’s Food Science Club bakes sweet potato pies for Food Bank of Delaware

November 21, 2011 under CANR News

To help those in need, the University of Delaware Food Science Club teamed up with the Food Bank of Delaware to bake delicious sweet potato pies for the Thanksgiving holiday. Those pies will be distributed as part of the Food Bank of Delaware’s mobile food pantry taking place at Eisenberg Elementary School in New Castle from 5-7 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 22.

Club members estimate that they baked close to 80 pies this year using sweet potatoes grown in the Garden for the Community and ingredients bought through the Food Science Club budget.

The Garden for the Community is located on one-third of an acre on UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) campus and provides a steady stream of fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits to Delaware’s hungry. The garden is a partnership between the Food Bank of Delaware and the CANR faculty and staff, undergraduate students and graduate students. Last year, the Garden for the Community donated three tons of vegetables, fruits and herbs to the Food Bank of Delaware.

Patricia Beebe, Food Bank of Delaware president and CEO, noted the importance of their relationship with the University. “As we work to feed more Delawareans, the importance of fresh, sustainable produce cannot be emphasized enough. The pie project is a perfect example of farm to table — sweet potatoes grown right here in Delaware to feed residents of our state. Last year the families who received these freshly-made pies were incredibly appreciative.”

About 20 students, mostly from the Food Science Club but also from the Alpha Sigma Alpha sorority, helped out this year, doing prep work and baking pies from 12:30-4 p.m., Wednesday, Nov.16, through Friday, Nov. 18.

Kali Kniel, associate professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences, helped coordinate the event and Melinda Litvinas, manager of the UDairy Creamery, helped the club by ordering all of the ingredients necessary to bake the pies.

Teresa Brodeur, a CANR junior and president of the Food Science Club, said she wanted to get involved with the Food Bank of Delaware after attending service events with her service fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega, last spring. “One of the service events that I attended weekly was at the Food Bank where we helped to organize the different donated food items. I really enjoyed the people who were in charge there and they made the experience both educational as well as enjoyable.”

Having missed out on baking the pies last year due to a schedule conflict, Brodeur, who one day hopes to open her own bakery, said that she was really looking forward to taking part in the event this year because “everyone seemed like they had so much fun last year.”

For more information on the Food Bank of Delaware, visit the website.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Danielle Quigley

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High school students get a chance to explore CANR

November 2, 2011 under CANR News

Thirty high school students interested in studying food science, plant and soil science and poultry science at the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) had a chance to take a closer look at those fields on Friday, Oct. 28, as part of the college’s Exploration Day.

The day started with a continental breakfast in the Townsend Hall Commons followed by a reception at which Blake Meyers, the Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences and chair of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, and Kali Kniel, associate professor of animal and food sciences, welcomed the students to the college.

Meyers talked about how agriculture is one of the bright spots in the nation’s economy and highlighted key points about the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, such as the low student-to-faculty ratio, which allows for a wealth of opportunities for internships and research programs.

“Our department spans a wide range of interests from landscape design, which is more art and design influence, through to plant protection, environmental soil science and plant molecular biology, where we have a lot of researchers doing exciting cutting edge research on plant genomics. Today we have an opportunity to explore each of these areas and really see what we’re doing in the department,” said Meyers.

Kniel focused on those students who came to learn more about food and poultry science, saying, “I think that this is a really exciting time for us to be involved in agriculture, in particular with the production of food of all kinds. Food is important to us — how we grow food, how we produce food, how we do product development, how we want to produce healthy food and how we get food to people. We’re going to explore some of those things and you’re going to see how important and exciting agriculture is and how innovation is top of the line when it comes to product development.”

After a presentation on admissions and scholarships by Heidi Mulherin, UD admissions counselor, the students divided into three groups — one for students interested in food science, one for plant science and one for poultry science.

The food science students got to visit the UDairy Creamery in the morning, where they tried their hand at making ice cream and participated in an ice cream taste test. In the afternoon, they had lessons on topics such as food packaging and investigating a foodborne illness outbreak.

The plant and soil science students learned about suburban landscaping with Sue Barton, associate professor of plant and soil science, toured the Fischer Greenhouse and explored a plant cell with Janine Sherrier, professor of plant and soil sciences at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute.

As for the poultry science students, they spent time in Allen Laboratory doing a variety of activities that included hands-on tracheal swabs of chickens with Robert Alphin, an instructor in animal and food sciences and the manager of the Agricultural Experiment Center, and Carl Schmidt, associate professor of animal and food sciences. These students learned about gene sequencing, avian domestication and evolution, and how using an electroencephalogram can assist in monitoring animal welfare.

The three groups had lunch together in the Townsend Hall Commons before breaking off for panel discussions with current UD students and alumni from their respective areas of interest.

Kimberly Yackoski, assistant dean for student services at CANR, said, “One of the main goals of Exploration Day is to introduce curious, science-minded high school students to the exciting and innovative things going on in our college. This day truly offers the ‘student explorer’ a better understanding of the diverse disciplines within our programs of study.”

One alumnus who was particularly insightful was Matt Sullenberger, who graduated in 2010 and had gone through Exploration Day as a high school student both for plant and soil science and food science.

“I think the best thing about Exploration Day was the hands-on activities that we did with the actual professors,” Sullenberger said. “It was sort of mimicking the type of classes we would have when we got here. It got me really excited about the programs.”

Sullenberger said that Exploration Day helped him get his college career off to the right start and gave him more information about a subject he thought he wanted to study but didn’t know that much about. “One of the big reasons why I did the food science track was that I didn’t know much about food science until I visited Delaware. I participated in Exploration Day partly to learn more about that.”

As for students who participated in Exploration Day this year, Jim and Wesley Johnson, twin brothers who attend high school in New Jersey and are interested in plant and soil science, said that they found Exploration Day to be both fun and beneficial.

“I really enjoyed the suburban landscaping class and it was interesting to hear Sue Barton talk about how instead of having 95 percent of your lawn be lawn, you can have meadows and things like that. It was pretty interesting; I never really knew that,” said Jim Johnson.

Wesley Johnson said that he would recommend Exploration Day to any student interested in the college because you get to “meet the teachers and see what it’s like in the classrooms.”

Kara Kowalski, a senior from New York City who is interested in food science, said that she enjoyed making ice cream at the creamery. “Our flavor was cake batter with chocolate covered pretzels and a graham cracker swirl.”

Kowalski said she liked “the sensory technology part of it, so I really liked the hands-on stuff, like smelling and tasting different flavors. We did a lot of that in the creamery, so that was really cool.”

The students who attended this year’s Exploration Day walked away with a new understanding of how fun and exciting learning can be at UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Danielle Quigley

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