Learning laboratory as well as professional skills at South Dakota State University this summer helped two Oglala Lakota College students explore careers in science and agriculture.
OLC senior Charles Bush of Porcupine and junior Candy DuBray of Rapid City participated in the Future Agriculture and Science Taskforce Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates fellowship program this summer. In addition, they attended the Botanical Society of America Conference July 27-31 in Tucson, Arizona.
The FAST REEU program provides qualifying students a 10-week university laboratory experience the first summer, followed by an industry internship the second summer. Students receive a $6,000 summer stipend through the program, which is in its second year. The FAST REEU program is funded by a four-year, nearly $280,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Associate professor of biology and microbiology Madhav Nepal, who is SDSU’s FAST REEU coordinator, helped Bush and DuBray secure a National Science Foundation Preparing Leaders and Nurturing Tomorrow’s Scientists grant to attend the national conference.
“This (REEU) experience opened a lot of possibilities that I never knew were right here in my own state,” said Bush. After he completes his bachelor’s degree in natural sciences with an emphasis on conservation biology, Bush wants to go to graduate school and eventually teach, perhaps at the college level. “It showed me new doors I could possibly open if I choose this route—and different ways to help pay for graduate school.”
Working with plant diseases
Bush, who is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, enjoyed the combination of laboratory analyses and fieldwork. “This was perfect—I got to do both.” He worked on a fungal disease called Phomopsis stem canker that affects soybean and sunflowers. Field Crops Pathologist Febina Mathew was also one of Bush’s research advisers.
“When students come to get experience in plant health, I make sure that they not only learn hands-on skills, such as culture techniques and DNA-based identification, but they are also trained in field diagnosis,” Mathew said.
Bush first helped develop a booklet on sunflower stem diseases that will help producers distinguish stem diseases, including Phomopsis stem canker, affecting plants from budding to maturity. The project is supported by the Agricultural and Food Research Initiative Foundational Critical Agricultural Research and Extension Program through USDA NIFA. The booklet will be distributed through SDSU Extension and the South Dakota Oilseeds Council.
Next, he and graduate student Renan Guidini planted soybean and sunflower seed varieties at the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station Felt Farm to screen for resistance to Phomopsis stem canker. Previously, few of these varieties have demonstrated resistance to the fungi causing stem canker in the greenhouse. The soybean research is funded by the United Soybean Board and the sunflower research by the AFRI Foundational CARE Program.
“Charles came to learn with a great passion and high excitement,” Nepal said. “I can see his strength as a leader. I am excited to support those strengths through both mentoring technical skills in lab as well as training him in the Wednesday morning professional development workshops.”
The lessons from the Wednesday workshops “are one of the main takeaways that helped me,” Bush said. The interconnectedness of the technical and professional skills reminded him of the Iktomi stories in Lakota mythology. “It puts that big picture into clarity.”
Nepal said, “We are trying to blend life skills with technical skills. Whether they go into the field of science or agriculture or neither, the soft-skills they’ve learned will go with them forever.”
Bush, who attended a private college prep school in New Hampshire, said, “I had a teacher who pushed me to see the value that I did not see (in myself) at the time. I want to be that person who pushes students into academia.”
Identifying stress-regulating genes
DuBray, who is a member of Rosebud Sioux Tribe, has a strong background in computer science and data processing, having previously worked on two mapping projects, including the USDA Farm Service Agency’s National Agriculture Imagery Program in Rapid City.
“In the beginning, I faced a lot of challenges understanding the branch of science that deals with plant evolution, community phylogenetics, comparative genomics and ecological genetics and how I can combine that with the computer science field,” DuBray said.
She worked on identifying a specific family of genes that regulate how sunflowers respond to stresses such as drought, freezing and diseases. To do this, DuBray used three bioinformatics software tools to compare specific portions of the sunflower genome, which was sequenced three years ago, with the stress-regulating genes already identified in wild mustard, or Arabidopsis, a model plant. Jordan Puritan, a doctoral student working in Nepal’s laboratory, served as DuBray’s co-mentor.
“This experience has definitely guided me to get more involved in the science area and has gotten me interested in computational biology and bioinformatics,” DuBray said. “As a Native American, I was taught at a young age to use plants to heal as medicine, to pray and to cherish all lands. The passion for agriculture is there. What needs to be addressed is the technology and science views and how it can assist indigenous communities and develop goals for education, graduate school and careers.”
“Candy has a lot of passion for coding and programming. I see her as being really good in bioinformatics,” said Nepal.
“The botany conference gave me a wide range of scientific and educational areas that use computer science skills. It’s a good start in the bioinformatics area,” DuBray said.
Students interested in applying for the FAST REEU program can get more information at https://www.sdstate.edu/biology-and-microbiology/fast-reeu-fellowships.