Ag biotech students
rack up major
Ryan Gile Fischer '07 was awarded a coveted scholarship from the national Astronaut Scholarship Foundation for 2006-2007, the sixth ag biotech major to receive that award in the past eight years. (Two of them, including Fischer, also majored in biology.)
Last year ag biotech major Elizabeth Scoville '07 was awarded a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship.
She also was named one of the top 10 college women in the United States for 2006 by Glamour magazine.
Two ag biotech students,
Kate Schweri '07 and
Megan R. Culler '08, were named UK's Beckman Scholars for 2006, receiving awards to support their
An ag biotech major—
Carrie Shaffer '07—took top honors in 2006 for her biological sciences research in UK's Oswald Research and Creativity Program, which encourages undergraduate scholarship.
"...They acquire knowledge,
belief in themselves,
for the future."
- Glenn Collins -
by Martha Jackson
Nine students hunkered over their notebooks in the plant sciences building. It was a Tuesday afternoon, and they were in an open classroom near the vending machines, but no hungry eyes strayed toward the candy. Nobody slouched, or daydreamed, or looked at people walking by.
Instead, all eyes and ears were locked on Joe Chappell, who was relaying last-minute instructions about biological tracers and data sets, about collecting cells and measuring synthesis rates.
"What's going to be on your lab bench?" Chappell asked, testing his students' readiness for the day's experiment. "When did I add the isotope?"
Then these kids spilled into the lab, quickly donning lab coats, safety glasses, and rubber gloves. They pulled out beakers and pipettes and positioned their cell cultures.
Suddenly, these kids didn't look like college students any more, but research scientists.
And that's the point.
They are ag biotech majors, science-oriented students who are not afraid to take calculus, molecular biology, and biochemistry, who walk fearlessly toward complex research and lab work, all before they get a diploma.
And when it's done, most of them move on to Something Big.
"They can go anywhere," said Bruce Webb, Entomology, who is director of undergraduate studies for the ag biotech program.
And they do. More than 60 percent of those who graduate go on to professional schools (in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, veterinary sciences, business, or law) or to graduate school at places like Yale, Cornell, and the Mayo Clinic. Many of the remaining students go into high-tech jobs with industry, in Kentucky and elsewhere.
Megan Flynn '04 of Somerset went straight into Berkeley's PhD program, where she is studying structural biology.
Jaime Lewis '05 is finishing up her second year in the UK College of Medicine.
Kenetha Dial '03 and Katie Hall '03 work at the Lexington site for Neogen, an international biotech company specializing in products for animal health and food safety.
Marci Adkins '97 works in forensics for the Kentucky State Police.
Jenny Wiseman '02 works for Applied Biosystems, a manufacturer of equipment and supplies for genetic research. One of its products has been used in the sequencing of the human genome.
The ag biotech program began in the late 1980s, as the College's faculty in the life sciences began to grow. (It included Glenn Collins and Chappell, both in Plant and Soil Sciences; Ernie Bailey in Veterinary Science; Karl Dawson in Animal Sciences, now with Alltech; Bob Houtz in Horticulture; Chris Schardl in Plant Pathology; Dave Wagner in Forestry; and Doug Dahlman in Entomology.)
That group was encouraged and supported by John Robertson, associate dean for instruction at that time.
The group began to develop an undergraduate program in biotechnology, which uses cellular and molecular science to manipulate and improve plants, animals, and microorganisms.
"Career opportunities were available," Collins said. Not only that, but skilled workers in biotech would be good for Kentucky.
Collins became the program's director for undergraduate studies, Chappell its co-director. The program was eventually formally recognized by the State's Council on Postsecondary Education and approved by the legislature.
"When we started the degree, to our knowledge, it was the first (undergraduate) degree in biotechnology in the United States," Collins said. It remains the only biotechnology undergraduate degree at UK.
By 1996 the program had its first official graduates.
The program has grown steadily since it began. About 165 students are currently enrolled. In recent years, about 60 percent of ag biotech majors have been women.
Those who enter the program as freshmen often have science on the brain when they get to UK. Katie Hall was one of them.
"I subscribed to Genetic Engineering News when I was in high school," Hall said. "I specifically sought out a biotech program. That's how I ended up in the College of Ag." Hall and others like her are attracted by the program's rigor and its flexibility.
But others transfer in. "The students do most of our recruiting," Webb said.
The curriculum is not for the fainthearted. Students have to take pre-major courses in calculus, biology, physics, and chemistry along with the standard courses required of all students. Once in the major, they have to take microbiology, biochemistry, statistics, and several biotechnology courses.
And genetics. There's introduction to genetics, population genetics, molecular genetics, and Chappell's class in experimental methods, which he describes as "cut and paste DNA."
Many of these students also work in campus labs almost as soon as they declare the major, but they also must carry out an independent research project or complete an internship in a lab for credit.
The independent research projects have titles that can make the layperson's eyes fog over, but they come down to very young people doing very sophisticated science.
"One student actually isolated and cloned a gene of a soybean fungus, then sequenced it and characterized it," Collins said. "You sit there and listen, and it sounds like a PhD student talking."
The internships can be done at a lab in the College, a lab elsewhere on the UK campus, or at an outside agency or university. About half are done in the College, 40 percent across campus, and 10 percent outside UK.
"One student did an internship at the FBI in Quantico, Va., working on the anthrax bacterium. Another worked in biotechnology at Disney World," Webb said.
Either way—research project or internship—ag biotech majors are required to present their work, in writing and orally.
Faculty from throughout the College coordinate the program, teach its courses, and serve as academic advisors. They include those from Animal and Food Sciences, Biosystems and Ag Engineering, Entomology, Forestry, Horticulture, Plant Pathology, Plant and Soil Sciences, and Veterinary Science.
UK faculty members outside the College also employ ag biotech students in their labs and serve as mentors for students' research projects.
Becky Dutch, who teaches molecular and cellular biochemistry in the College of Medicine, is one of them.
"The quality of these students is very high," said Dutch. "They're enthusiastic about research, and they're willing to work very hard."
"My greatest satisfaction comes from seeing quality students attracted (to the program) and how well prepared they become," Collins said. "They acquire knowledge, research skills, belief in themselves, and confidence for the future."
Megan Culler '08 (left) is a researcher in the lab of the College of Medicine's
Becky Dutch (right).
Ag biotech graduate Jenny Wiseman agrees. The professors who teach ag biotech, she said, "have ownership of this program. They want you to be successful. They want you to learn."