Published: Aug. 6, 2019

Record number of postdoctoral researchers earn NIFA fellowships

By: Madeline Kelly University Communications kellym35@msu.eduContact(s): Eileen Gianiodis Agriculture and Natural Resources office: (517) 432-1555, ext. 230 cell: (517) 242-4753

Seven Michigan State University postdoctoral researchers are recipients of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, or NIFA, fellowship and two-year grant of $161,000 to support ongoing research in their field.  

NIFA, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, awards fellowships annually to postdoctoral researchers around the country to help develop the next generation of research, education and extension professionals supporting current and future agricultural challenges. 

The fellowship recipients are: 

Alyssa Beavers, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, research is focused on the impact of gardening on the human gut microbiome, or the bacteria that live inside intestines, and antibiotic resistance, which impacts people’s ability to fight off infections.

The study, which began in May 2019, investigates whether having contact with soil can result in bacteria from the soil or antibiotic resistance properties transferring to the human gut microbiome. Beavers is analyzing stool samples from gardeners and samples of composts and soils that gardeners use.

Andrea Glassmire, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Entomology, plans to research an accepted principle of sustainable pest management: increasing plant biodiversity on farms will decrease pest problems. She is studying the mostly overlooked role of diversity in plant odors and the influence of combinations of odors emitted by neighboring plants. 

As part of assistant professor Will Wetzel’s lab, Glassmire will work with multiple tomato varieties with differing odor profiles to determine their effect on the behavior of a key pest, the tobacco hornworm and its natural enemies. She will organize wind tunnel, lab and field experiments to examine host preferences of colonizing hornworms and natural enemies by manipulating monocultures and polycultures of tomato varieties based on their chemical dissimilarity.

Andrew Wiersma, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, research is focused on using genomic data to accelerate dry bean resistance gene discovery, improve breeding efficiency and developing disease resistant varieties. He explained that extraordinary genetic diversity exists within the common bean gene pool, and now genomics will can assist in cataloging and using that diversity more effectively.

Throughout the term of the fellowship, Wiersma is excited to develop his genomics-based plant breeding skills. Additionally, he will help create curriculum for an advanced plant breeding course at MSU and lead high school honors students interested in research.

Joseph Hill, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Horticulture, plans to use the grant to support his research on molecular-level tree architecture that could lead to improvements in fruit tree-growing methods.

Hill will continue work as a research associate with MSU horticulture assistant professor Courtney Hollender and the Hollender Lab. He will study how trees control aspects of their growth and the molecular basis of plant growth and architecture by the TAC1 and LAZY1 genes. Hill’s research will also identify other genes and proteins that are involved in tree growth and branch angle.

Kelsey Graham, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Entomology, will address a concern about pollinator plantings with her research. Pollinators are essential for optimizing yields. Both managed honey bees and wild bees provide pollination services by visiting flowers and transferring pollen between plants, which eventually leads to fruit. Wild bees are particularly efficient at moving pollen, which is one reason why blueberry growers have increasingly been trying to attract wild bees to their farms.

Based in the lab of professor Rufus Isaacs, Graham will analyze bee collected pollen and flowers for pesticides residues, comparing sites with and without pollinator plantings. She will also sample for wild bees to see which species are most attracted to these habitat enhancements. 

Miranda Haus, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, is exploring the relationship between dry bean root architecture and seed mineral nutrition. Dry beans are a staple food crop for millions of people around the world, and Haus is examining how to develop a more sustainable, fruitful crop.

“The aim of my fellowship is roots as a potential resource for climate-resilient breeding strategies because few studies have asked if changes in root architecture are related to plant mineral acquisition and seed nutrition,” Haus said. “Root systems with better nutrient acquisition require less fertilizer, are more resilient and have more nutritious seeds.”

Rafael Martinez-Feria, postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences will focus his research into the viability of mixed grain-bioenergy cropping systems for current and future climates.

About 40% of the corn grain grown in the United States currently is used to produce biofuels. This creates a competing interest with food production. Surging demand for grain in the Corn Belt has pushed crop production into many marginal areas within crop fields, which are more ecologically suited for perennial vegetation. This has led to low or unstable grain yields in these areas and diminished environmental quality in the region.

The models will compare soil and terrain characteristics, weather patterns and management factors to yield potential and variability of various grain and bioenergy crops in more than 500 farmers fields across eight Corn Belt states.