Ag Sciences graduate students win prestigious research fellowships

Three graduate students in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences recently received prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships.

Beth Irwin of Lancaster, Pa., a doctoral candidate in entomology, received a fellowship to fund her research on plant defenses against insect herbivores. Her research focuses on new ways to harness existing plant interactions to boost plant defenses against insects. She also has studied the symbiotic (mutual) relationship between soybeans and nitrogen-fixing bacteria, or rizhobia, which take nitrogen from the atmosphere and make it available to the plant. In addition, she has looked at the interaction between rizhobia and parasitic plants.

"Having a hypothesis-driven proposal really worked in her favor," said Consuelo De Moraes, associate professor of entomology and Irwin's co-advisor. "Her research is interesting because it deals with basic science but has an application for agriculture."

Lauren Weyrich of Sturgis, S.D., received a NSF Graduate Fellowship to support her research on the microbiological interactions between Bordetella bacteria, which can cause whooping cough in humans, and their hosts. A dual doctoral candidate in biochemistry, microbiology, and molecular biology (BMMB), and bioethics and medical humanities, she will study host-microbe interactions using a multidisciplinary approach.

"She is literally trailblazing a new program combining the very rigorous Ph.D. programs in BMMD and Bioethics," said Eric Harvill, associate professor of microbiology and infectious disease, who is Weyrich's advisor. "This award shows that she not only can perform great research but can convincingly propose new projects, which is a critical skill for continued success in science at the highest levels."

Tom Bentley of Downingtown, Pa., a doctoral candidate in the Ecology Intercollege Graduate Degree Program offered by the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, received an NSF Graduate Fellowship to support his research on how the evolution of plant viruses affects interactions between plants and insects.

"Tom’s project involves developing a new model system for exploring the evolution of virus-induced effects on host-plant chemistry that influence interactions with disease vectors," said Mark Mescher, assistant professor of entomology and Bentley's advisor. "Tom has a good eye for interesting conceptual issues in ecology. His work brings a more ecological and evolutionary perspective to the study of plant pathogens."

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program annually selects outstanding graduate students for the awards, which provide three years of funding for participants' master's and doctoral studies. The awards are based on the applicants' abilities and accomplishments, as well as their potential to contribute to strengthening the vitality of the U.S. science and engineering enterprise.



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Last Updated June 29, 2009