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NEWBio Education Program: Undergraduate Bioenergy Scholars Recount Summer Experiences

NEWBio Objective XI: Educate students, citizens, landowners and policymakers to increase public understanding of biomass alternatives, including the social, economic, and environmental impacts of sustainable bioenergy systems in the NE.

How will NEWBio achieve Objective XI? Through interviews with various stakeholders of NEWBio's three education programs, it is easy to see the successes, challenges, and hopes for education in the bioenergy field. This week's focus is on NEWBio's Undergraduate Bioenergy Scholars Program.

The inaugural class of the Undergraduate Bioenergy Scholars Program dedicated eight weeks of their summer to bioenergy research. Their experience began with an orientation week at Delaware State University, and field trips to DuPont, Penn State University, and Rutgers University to learn about various research projects and more fully explore the NEWBio vision and goals.

As described by scholar Jeremy Buhain, "the focus of the few days at Delaware State University during orientation was to familiarize us with lab techniques." Techniques such as pipette etiquette and DNA extraction were taught by graduate students in Dr. Venu Kalavacharla's laboratory. Dr. Kalavacharla, a program coordinator and researcher in the College of Agriculture and Related Sciences at DSU, simultaneously ran a Research Experiences for Undergraduates program (REU) in Molecular Genetics & Genomics, which exposed the scholars to a variety of aspects of the bioenergy field. Buhain enjoyed the planned variation of orientation week and the opportunity to bond with the other scholars.

Based on their research interests, eight scholars were paired with mentors at Delaware State University, Penn State University, Rutgers University, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), Cornell University, and West Virginia University. Buhain, a fourth year chemical engineer at Rutgers University, was mentored by Dr. Mingxin Guo of Delaware State University and completed research on existing biofuel systems. David Martino, a fourth year plant science major at Penn State University, was mentored by Dr. Jingxin Wang of West Virginia University and completed research on the processing of woody biomass. Brittany McCarthy is a senior at James Madison University where she is studying biotechnology, and currently working on a forensic entomology project. She was mentored by Dr. Kalavacharla at DSU. All three scholars worked closely with graduate assistants on lab procedures.

"I was able to look at the actual biodiesel production process in a small-scale lab procedure, which was a fantastic supplement to [my] literary research" says Buhain. "I've seen not only the environmental need for bioenergy but also the biology, the chemistry, and the engineering behind several existing bioenergy systems." He is now considering pursuing a career in the bioenergy field because the program successfully connected his research with his degree coursework.

The program captured the attention of these future leaders, by demonstrating the applicability of different fields of study to the broad and dynamic field of bioenergy. Producing a research paper and an informative poster was a goal for each scholar. Both Martino and Buhain felt this was a difficult feat due to the program's short duration. However, all scholars were able to present their research at the NEWBio Bioenergy Symposium, held this past August at Penn State University.

McCarthy's efforts focused on epigenetics, specifically DNA methylation in Panicum virgatum. Her goal was to identify, clone, and express a DNA methyltransferase gene from swithgrass DNA. "My experience with this program allowed me to meet people from all over the country and to gain contacts with people currently studying at different universities," said McCarthy. "I was able to gain further laboratory experience, the ability to better comprehend and analyze scientific articles, as well as gain confidence in presenting my research. These skills and connections will only help me in my academic career and in the work force."

The scholars all agreed that the Symposium was an amazing learning experience. The Symposium allowed them to meet "great minds" working in the field of bioenergy, hear about unfamiliar topics and projects, and absorb information from diverse perspectives. It allowed for greater comprehension of their research's meaning and how the work contributes to NEWBio's purpose and future plans.

Because of the uniqueness of the program, Buhain advises 2014 scholars to "take in as much information as you can." McCarthy echoed this sentiment. "I would tell the next Bioenergy Scholars that they get what they put into it. Sometimes science can be frustrating, especially when working in the lab when you don't get the results you were hoping for. There is something to learn from every experience, and that is what you need to focus on. A summer internship is a great opportunity to learn, be a part of up and coming research, and get to know other people in the same field."

The Bioenergy Scholars Program is headquartered at Delaware State. Kalpalatha Melmaiee, a research scientist at DSU and scholar program coordinator, will reach out to potential NEWBio mentors this fall. Mentors, their institutions, and their research project needs will be posted to the NEWBio website in early October. 2014 Bioenergy Scholar applications will be available on November 1, 2013, and due by January 15, 2014.

For more information, see the NEWBio Education page.

Story credit: Rachel Passmore, Penn State Class of 2014 and NEWBio Intern

NEWBio (consortium members below) is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2012-68005-19703 
from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
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