by Katie Pratt
Students Philip Houtz and Juliane Deacutis (center and right) in Bruce Webb’s (left) entomology lab are studying the beneficial wasp Campoletis sonorensis and its host, the tobacco budworm (above).
University of Kentucky undergraduate researcher Philip Houtz and graduate student Juliane Deacutis were working diligently in Professor Bruce Webb’s entomology lab studying the parasitoid wasp Campoletis sonorensis and its host, the tobacco budworm. However, they weren’t getting the results they should have.
The wasp injects eggs along with polydnaviruses into the tobacco budworm. The virus shuts down the caterpillar’s immune system, allowing the eggs to hatch and the larvae to overtake the caterpillar. In the lab, however, wasp larvae were dying at a 50 to 60 percent clip, usually after emerging from their first host, but some were dying inside the caterpillar.
The researchers then looked at DNA extracted from larval wasps and…
They found a second virus in the wasp larvae DNA that could be responsible for the wasps’ deaths and critical for effective biological control of the caterpillars.
Research like this could have important and lasting implications in the agricultural industry. And it’s being conducted by students in the College of Agriculture.
Carilynn Gravatte, with the help of fellow undergraduate Curtis Coombs, used a new technology for monitoring cow behavior to tie a dairy cow’s lying time to her milk production. Studying 15 Holstein herds in freestall barns across the state, Gravatte found that providing cows with plenty of opportunities to rest is a key factor in maximizing milk production. Additionally, she was able to quantify factors that influence cow lying time. This information can help producers learn how to change management conditions to maximize cow lying times.
“This project is a perfect example of the land-grant university’s research mission,” said Jeffrey Bewley, assistant extension professor in Animal and Food Sciences. “It is valuable research that allows commercial farmers to better manage and improve the health of their herds and simultaneously provides students with an opportunity to learn about research and extension.”
UK seed biologist Bruce Downie has had three undergraduate students and one high school student who are co-authors on research publications.
“Students who pursue undergraduate research are highly motivated, because they want to learn and contribute,” the horticulture professor said. “Their research is of immense quality—valuable and publishable in reputable journals.”
In only her first year in Downie’s lab, agricultural biotechnology major Taylor Lloyd published papers in Kaleidoscope and Journal of Biological Chemistry and had a grant funded by the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates. Her studies explore how temperature and light affect seed germination at the molecular level.
“The initiative that UK is taking to get undergraduates involved in the lab is phenomenal. The university is really making great strides to support us,” Lloyd said. “I had only one semester in the lab and was able to write a grant application for the National Science Foundation. Being listed as an author of a publication in my first year in the lab is great.”
Webb has had several undergraduate research students in his lab over the years. He said larger research universities like UK can offer undergraduates research opportunities that some smaller schools cannot.
“Students who are interested in a possible career in research can take the next step and join a lab,” Webb said. “For those who decide to make research a career, it helps them tremendously. Most researchers support it, because at some point somebody gave us that opportunity.”
Offering the chance to work with some of the best researchers in their fields can give large land-grant universities another step up in a student’s college selection process, said Larry Jones, the College’s associate dean for academic programs.
“Here, students have the opportunity to interact with and learn from world-renowned researchers,” he said. “It’s a tremendous educational experience for them that they can’t get everywhere.”
A Step Toward Success
It was the opportunity to conduct research early on that led Philip Houtz to choose UK. The agriculture biotechnology and chemistry major chose to jumpstart his college experience by working in Webb’s lab the summer before his freshman year. He knew his lab experience would give him the opportunity to explore a career in entomology. Bugs have fascinated him since he was a young child growing up in rural Clark County, but it wasn’t until the end of his high school career that he began to think about research as a career path.
After working two years in the lab, he’s hooked and plans to get a master’s degree and possibly a doctorate in entomology upon finishing his undergraduate work.
“Science is all about taking things we don’t know about the world and finding answers to them,” he said. “It’s a big curiosity satisfier.”
Curtis Coombs and Carilynn Gravatte are moving toward successful careers by taking advantage of the research opportunities the College offers its undergraduate students.
Both Gravatte and Coombs grew up on dairy farms—Gravatte in Western Kentucky and Coombs in Henry County. Gravatte, who graduated in December 2010 with a dual major in community and leadership development and animal sciences, hopes to work as an animal agriculture lobbyist in Washington, D.C. Coombs graduated in May with a degree in agricultural education and hopes to carry on the family business and possibly pursue a career as a county Cooperative Extension agent.
But undergrads don’t always know what they want to do after college. Many undergraduate students enter a lab to gain research experience and further explore a possible career field. While not all undergraduate researchers will stay in the lab for their entire professional career, they are able to refine critical thinking and decision making skills that will help them no matter what career path they choose.
But there are others like Lloyd, who fall in love with their subject and decide to further pursue a career in that type of research.
After conducting research under Bruce Downie (r), Taylor Lloyd added an agricultural biotechnology major to her original biology major and plans to continue working with seeds as a cell biologist and university professor.
Lloyd, a Boone County native, was a freshman biology major planning a career in veterinary pathology when she got a job in Downie’s lab through UK’s Office of Undergraduate Research, formerly known as eUreKa! As she worked in the lab, her interest in seeds grew. She eventually added an agricultural biotechnology major and now wants to be a cell biologist and university professor, likely working with seeds.
The results these undergraduate researchers produce are gaining attention in their respective fields.
Houtz and Deacutis presented their findings during the Entomological Society of America conference in December. The virus they co-found doesn’t have a name yet, but it is a cypovirus, which normally kills caterpillars—even though it doesn’t in this case.
“It’s a new research topic because viruses usually work in a different way,” Houtz said.
Houtz’s work with the virus helped him become a Beckman Scholar, the only one awarded by UK in 2010. He received a $19,300, 14-month scholarship from the Beckman Foundation to continue to study the relationship between these two viruses and their role in effective biological control.
Gravatte presented the findings of her study at the summer 2010 meeting of the American Dairy Science Association in Denver.
“This project added responsibility to my undergraduate career and made it more practical,” she said. “Plus it created an opportunity I never thought I would have—to present my research along with other animal scientists in Denver and meet Temple Grandin, who actually approached me at the meeting to learn more about my research project.” Grandin is a widely respected animal scientist.
At the same conference, Coombs presented the results of a solo project in which he surveyed the producers of the top milk production herds in the state to learn what best management practices they use. Survey results were collected into one publication so that other dairy producers in the state can see what the top ones are doing and maybe learn some new ways to increase their milk production.
“The biggest thing about the research project is the doors it’s opened and the experience it’s given,” Coombs said. “I’ve learned a lot about the dairy industry and how other farms work. It really takes the undergraduate degree up a notch.”
Whether in the lab or in the field, research produced by undergraduates provides important information to researchers, farmers, and the agricultural industry. This is why so many in the College continue to mold and support these future scientific leaders. ◆