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Prep students making mark in science internships

By Dan Rahn
University of Georgia

It's hard to imagine two less likely partners toiling in a steamy, south Georgia tobacco field than Summer Wright and Shane Connell. The high school students' studies, though, could catch scientists' eyes worldwide.

"This research has been done before, but not in this detail in tobacco," said Stephen Mullis, coordinator of the University of Georgia's plant pathology virology lab in Tifton, Ga.

Side-by-side with Georgia's best

Mullis and UGA plant pathology researcher Alex Csinos are mentoring Connell and Wright in the Young Scholars Program of the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

The annual program pairs students with CAES scientists in six-week summer internships on the UGA Athens, Griffin and Tifton campuses.

"We wanted these two students to do something productive," Mullis said of the research project he and Csinos have guided. "I've been extraordinarily impressed with their work. We may be looking at getting their names on a refereed journal article."

Connell, a country boy, and Wright, a city girl, are studying tomato spotted wilt virus. Specifically, they're trying to find exactly how this devastating virus moves through tobacco plants.

The scientists set up the experiment by screening 90 tobacco plants for the virus. From those, they singled out 10 infected and 10 noninfected plants.

Twice a week since early June, Connell and Wright have been out in the tobacco field, observing symptoms and carefully sampling plant tissues throughout those plants to be analyzed in the lab.

"I like this, but I don't like the field work much," said Wright, whose normal summer habitat is air-conditioned. "It's a lot harder than I thought it would be."

But the work they're doing may be groundbreaking. "They've run roughly 2,000 samples off those 20 plants so far," Mullins said. "We've got a lot of good, hard data to analyze."

More than 60 interns statewide

The Young Scholars Program has 14 students enrolled on the Tifton campus this summer, said Susan Reinhardt, YSP director in Tifton. Another 26 students are interning in Griffin, and 25 are in Athens.

The interns are paid for up to 40 hours per week while working side-by-side with UGA scientists. "The whole purpose is to get students involved in the science behind agriculture," Reinhardt said.

It's working.

"It's different from what I expected," said Wright, a junior this fall at Tift County High. "I never thought of agriculture and science together. I thought of agriculture as growing things and science as high-tech work. But the two really go together hand-in-hand."

Wright was surprised at the work load in a science laboratory, too. "I pictured them sitting around a lot, but they don't," she said. "They really work."

Connell, a senior this fall at Berrien County High, feels right at home in agriculture. "I've had a lot of ag classes," he said. "And I live in south Georgia. Everything around me is agriculture. I'm naturally interested in it."

While Wright chose plant pathology because she knew the least about it, Connell was well acquainted with it, partly through his Future Farmers of America work. "I've been working on a three-year study on tomato spotted wilt virus," he said.

His experience hasn't completely surprised him. "This is what I expected, for the most part," he said. "But I've had a much broader look at how research is actually done, as opposed to the kind of science we do in the high school lab."

Like Wright, Connell is impressed by the volume of work in a university lab. "The most surprising thing," he said, "has been how many samples run through this lab in a week. These guys really have a lot to do."

Connell plans to attend Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College for core classes and then UGA or the Medical College of Georgia.

"I'd like to get into clinical pathology -- people pathology," he said. "But some of the basic principles of what we're doing here will apply in that field, too."

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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