Plant pathology, environmental microbiology doctoral student receives NSF award

May 13, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Laura Kaminsky, a doctoral student in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, will be able to advance her research interests in plant pathology after receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited institutions in the United States.

Kaminsky’s research focuses on improving the performance of beneficial microbes in agricultural soils. She explained that certain soil bacteria and fungi can improve crop yield and health by increasing soil nutrient availability, suppressing plant disease and stimulating plant growth.

Some of these microorganisms have been turned into products marketed to farmers, and they have the potential to ease dependence on fertilizers and pesticides with larger environmental footprints. However, for microbial products to function, the microbes must survive substantial stress and competition from the resident soil microbiome, Kaminsky pointed out.

Laura Kaminsky

Laura Kaminsky, a doctoral student in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

IMAGE: Penn State

“Often, applied microbes simply die out before they can have an effect,” she said. “My research will investigate this stress and competition and test ways to improve the survival of introduced beneficial microbes. I will incorporate both lab and field experiments and will work directly with farmers.”

Kaminsky’s research goals are twofold. By improving the efficacy and reliability of microbial products in agriculture, she hopes to decrease the use of conventional fertilizers and pesticides, thereby reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture. In addition, she aspires to facilitate an understanding of soil microbial ecology among growers through Penn State's extension network, and recently authored an Extension article to communicate why microbial products can be so unpredictable.

“Laura is exactly the type of student that the NSF seeks to fund — someone who excels academically but also strives to make broad societal impacts,” said Terrence Bell, assistant professor of phytobiomes in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology. “She aims to create work that is both original and has practical value for her region and beyond.”

He added that in his time working with Kaminsky, she has been a first author on two important scientific publications and has co-authored another accepted article and a book chapter. She has also mentored undergraduate students, worked on farms, and has found ways to make microbiology accessible to farmers and other agricultural practitioners through both presentations and writing.

As a complement to her academic pursuits, Kaminsky serves on the executive board of the Penn State Community Garden — part of Penn State’s Sustainability Institute — which provides gardening space, tools and workshops to its members. A portion of the produce grown in the garden is donated to the State College Food Bank.

"I am honored to have been chosen for the National Science Foundation award and excited for the opportunities it opens for me,” said Kaminsky, whose future goal is to work at a land-grant university or USDA facility, conducting soil microbial ecology research with practical applications in agriculture.

“I’m immensely grateful to everyone who has guided and mentored me since I first set foot in a research lab. Their support and investment have brought me to this point."

Kaminsky was enrolled in the NSF Graduate Fellowship Preparation course under the direction of Rama Radhakrishna, assistant dean for graduate education and professor of agricultural and extension education. The course — AEE 597: NSF GRFP Preparation Course (schedule 3741) — will be offered Wednesdays from 3:35 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. during the fall 2019 semester.

Kaminsky also received mentorship on grant writing from the co-principal investigators of the mBiome graduate cohort, funded by the college’s Strategic Networks and Initiatives Program, as well as Carolee Bull and Bull's long-time colleague, William Head, retired professor at California State University, Monterey Bay, and former director of its undergraduate research opportunity center. Between them, they have mentored numerous successful fellows.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 14, 2019