“We're able to take a really complex, in-depth project and incorporate high school students, so they can broaden their scientific knowledge and also make a meaningful contribution to important research.”

−Lou Hirsch 

It's quiet in the laboratory, where everyone is “intensely microscoping,” as Lou Hirsch puts it. Whether or not that's a noun that deserves promotion to a verb, Hirsch accurately describes the activity of 20 or so Garrard County High School students during a daytrip to his lab in the Plant Science Building on the University of Kentucky campus.

They will examine “everything from fungi to bacteria,” the UK plant pathology lecturer tells them. That's just a sample of what elementary, middle school, and high school students explore when the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment arrives at their schools or invites them to campus, giving them a taste of a university education long before they make future career decisions.

“I've made it my professional goal to broaden STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) curricula by introducing agriculturally focused laboratory modules into classrooms,” Hirsch said. “I like to remind students that microbiology affects a lot more than (human) medicine. In agriculture, we do the same research that occurs in biology or medicine. We just focus on agriculturally relevant organisms.”

Morgan Miracle was fascinated by the fungi she examined in the plant pathology laboratory.

Hirsch is fond of pointing out that agricultural organisms should be important to each student, because everyone has to eat. The organism Shannah Reynold's class examined during their visit to Hirsch's lab causes potato soft rot. Another can cause an apple disease, and yet another kills corn plants.

“Agriculture is huge in our area,” Reynolds said. “In class, we focus on human microbes for the most part, but agriculture is a big interest for them.”

Senior Morgan Miracle “loves this stuff,” and though she is thinking about becoming a surgeon, she was having an “amazing” time examining fungi under the microscope. 

“It's just amazing to me that this black, white, and green fuzz on this petri dish looks completely different under the microscope,” she said. “It's just amazing to me what everything is created of at its smallest (level).”

Hirsch also brings his expertise to area schools. He is part of an interdisciplinary group of scientists, including Plant and Soil Sciences' Rebecca McCulley and Tim Phillips, Plant Pathology's Chris Schardl and adjunct faculty member Pat Calie, who is also on the biology faculty of Eastern Kentucky University. Garrard County High School and Leestown Middle School in Lexington are collaborating with the team in a five-year field study of fungal endophytes in a common forage grass, tall fescue—a fungal presence that affects cattle health. Students at both schools will take grass samples from the fields, as well as count insects to look at how their populations change over time. Back in their classrooms, they will complete DNA analysis of the samples. If the data are high quality—and Hirsch expects them to be— the UK scientists will incorporate the results into research publications.

“We’re able to take a really complex, in-depth project and incorporate high school students, so they can broaden their scientific knowledge and also make a meaningful contribution to important research,” Hirsch said.

Garrard County teacher Morgan Brogli sees it as a “huge” advantage to have Hirsch teach some of her classes in preparation for their involvement in the tall fescue project.

“It gets them excited about real-world experiences they can have in a scientific field,” she said. “The things they're learning now, the equipment they’re getting to use, the research experience they're receiving, I’m very excited about.”

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(l-R) Ricky Mason and Akinbode Adedeji oversee Carter G. Woodson Academy students Jonathan Lott and Kristian Bolden as they build a system for improving the shelf-life of produce

Learning After Hours

Jonathan Lott, 17, and Kristian Bolden, 16, finished the school day at the Carter G. Woodson Academy in Lexington and immediately headed to Assistant Professor Akinbode Adedeji's lab in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering. There, Dr. Bode, as the teenagers call him, and Ricky Mason, engineer associate in BAE, guide the two young men in developing an inexpensive, tabletop system for improving the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. Using an ultraviolet light and a simple computer, Lott and Bolden learn aspects of electrical engineering, computer programming, food preservation, and nutritional content. Not bad for a couple of hours after school a few days a week.

Lott and Bolden are participating in a program that Professor Lisa Vaillancourt, Plant Pathology, started in spring 2017. It began as a way to encourage and support students for their science fair projects. Vaillancourt, who has judged many science fairs over the years, noticed that contestants had an advantage if they had parental connections to the university. She also noticed that there was very little diversity among the students. She believed she could offer that university advantage to young men of color at the Carter G. Woodson Academy by working with them in her lab. 

UK veterinary pathologist Uneeda Bryant takes great pleasure in exposing students to different areas of veterinary science. Here she guides students at Elkhorn Crossing School through an exhibit of parasites.

That first year, three high school students worked with Vaillancourt and research specialist Etta Nuckles. All three did very well at their science fair; advancing from the Fayette County district fair to the regional fair and on to the state level.

Wanting to include more students this year, Vaillancourt knew she needed to involve more CAFE faculty. She, Ken Jones, director of CAFE Program and Staff Development, and Quentin Tyler, former director of CAFE's Office of Diversity, successfully sought financial support from Kentucky EPSCoR. With participation from nine additional faculty members, more students were able to work with university researchers after school. Some of those students took their projects to this year's fair, where they continued to excel, while others presented their work at the national MANRRS, Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences, conference in North Carolina in April. 

It's been an enriching experience for Bolden and Lott, who both are fascinated by science and math. Bolden wants to go into biomedical engineering, and Lott plans to become an electrical engineer.

In the Gluck Equine Research Center, Maliq Trigg, 18, spends his afternoons in Professor Daniel Howe's laboratory looking for antibodies in serum from horses. He's tracking down parasites with guidance from research assistant Michelle Yeargan. He has learned some eye-opening facts. 

“I've learned these parasites can get into a horse's spine and also make them lose muscle,” he said. “The same parasite can get into a goat, and the goat won't be affected at all. It's bizarre.”

(l-R) Maliq Trigg spent the spring semester honing his lab skills in Daniel Howe‘s lab in the Gluck Equine Research Center.

Trigg has decided to major in business when he goes to college next year, but he still appreciates what he's learned in the program and what he shared at the MANRRS conference.

“To be able to share with other people from around the country what I've learned about horses and horse parasites was a lot of fun,” he said. “This program has allowed me to learn more about science than I knew before.”

Scientific Road Show

Opening students' eyes to the possibilities of a career in science, and particularly a career in a veterinary medicine specialty, is Uneeda Bryant's goal when she takes her traveling caravan of animal body parts and parasites into local schools. Bryant is an associate professor in veterinary pathology at the UK Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. Visiting schools and talking about her profession is Bryant's passion. That's obvious as she stands before members of the Health Club at Elkhorn Crossing School in Georgetown.

“There are so many different things veterinarians are doing,” she said. “That's why I like to come to schools to educate young people about different career paths. What I do is a nontraditional career path in veterinary medicine.”

To give students an idea of the type of work they could expect in the field, Bryant brings along a videotape showing a necropsy of a horse. It's vivid, and there are a few groans from the audience, but many of them eagerly lean forward as they view the piece. Then comes the highlight of the morning: a chance to walk among, and touch, items in Bryant's traveling exhibit. 

On a table lies an expired ocelot and alligator. Glass containers are filled with an array of parasites. A hair ball from a cow and a renal stone from a horse both compete for attention with a rather sizable stomach stone from a llama. Hearts and eyes and different animal fetuses crowd the tables. So do the students, as they angle to get a good view of the items.

“These are the things you might be able to Google or see in a book, but being able to pick it up and really examine the detail is very beneficial, especially for students who are interested in going into a similar field,” Bryant said.

Kaitlynn Stephens and Mallory Thompson, both seniors and both part of the school's Health Sciences Village, organized Bryant's visit. They are thinking about careers in human health fields, but Bryant's talk was enlightening.

“I thought it was incredibly interesting,” Stephens said. “I know there are pathologists, but I never thought about animal pathologists.”

And that's Bryant's reason for making these excursions out to the schools. 

“I like to encourage kids and introduce them to new ideas and more options. They just need to realize they can do anything they want to do, as long as they stick to it, have a passion for it, and work hard.”

It's a quickly evolving world, where career options can change rapidly. College of Agriculture, Food and Environment personnel enthusiastically lay a trail of educational bread crumbs that they hope will prepare the next generation for successful careers in science – satisfying careers that will also benefit others.

“Through activities like these we fulfill our land-grant mission of broadly disseminating knowledge and opportunity to people throughout Kentucky,” Hirsch said.

“I like to encourage kids and introduce them to new ideas”

–Uneeda Bryant