MSU genetics students awarded USDA fellowships

Published August 14, 2017

Three Ph.D. students in MSU's genetics program received National Needs Graduate Fellowships through a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. From left to right: Ryan Corbett, Senator Debbie Stabenow, Amanda Koenig and Katerina Lay.

For many students, summertime means vacation time. But for three Ph.D. students in Michigan State University’s (MSU) genetics program, it meant an opportunity for a month-long public policy internship in Washington, D.C.

Ryan Corbett, Amanda Koenig and Katerina Lay each received National Needs Graduate Fellowships (NNF) through a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The fellowship grant supports traineeship programs that engage outstanding students in pursuing and completing their degrees in USDA mission areas.

Catherine Ernst, professor of animal genetics and director of MSU’s Genetics Graduate Program, administered through the College of Natural Science, first led an effort with a group of colleagues to submit an application for the grant in 2014.

“Our grant is focused on plant and animal genomics as integral to addressing food security challenges,” Ernst said. “One of the experiential activities within the training program was this June trip to Washington, D.C.”

Through a rotation schedule, each of the students spent a week in the office of Michigan senator Gary Peters, working with legislative staff on agricultural policy; a week visiting USDA and NSF agencies (a different agency every day); and a week with a trade association that most closely fit with their respective area of research—Koenig worked with the National Association of Wheat Growers, Corbett was placed with the National Pork Producers Council, and Lay was with the American Seed Trade Association.

“This internship gave us a snapshot of the USDA and how the government functions,” said Koenig, who will be a second-year student in the fall. She works in the lab of Susanne Hoffmann-Benning, assistant professor in the biochemistry and molecular biology (BMB) department. She uses Arabidopsis to investigate how lipids are involved in long-distance signaling in the plant.

“My research focuses on the mechanisms by which lipids can travel systemically throughout the plant to signal developmental responses to stresses like drought,” Koenig said. “Ultimately, by understanding the ways in which plants regulate their responses to abiotic stresses, we can enhance the ability of crop plants, for example, to better tolerate harsh growing conditions, creating a more stable and secure food supply for a growing population.

 “I would like to go into government work after completing my Ph.D., so it was essential for me to get a close-up view of what I’d be doing,” Koenig continued. “This internship definitely reaffirmed my career goals.”

“I don’t have a fully fleshed-out idea of the career path I want to take,” said Corbett, a third-year student working in Ernst’s lab. “So it was important for me to make professional contacts in different fields—ranging from scientists at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), to administrative staff at the Food and Drug Administration and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.”

Corbett’s research focuses on better understanding the pig genome—specifically, how it influences important traits such as muscle development, fat deposition and stress response.

“Long-term, we hope this research will improve selective breeding practices and animal production in a world where food demand is going to increase dramatically in the next 50 years,” Corbett said.

For Lay, the most valuable aspect of the internship was being able to get a good sense of how the three distinct parts of the structure—the government, the agencies and the trade associations—work together and how they integrate with each other in regard to science policy.

“Talking with people at the agencies gave me a very good sense of their purpose, and then when I went to Congress, I knew how policies would be impacting these agencies,” Lay said. “I was even able to attend hearings for the trade association. Being able to see how that all fit together gave me a holistic understanding of science policy.”

Lay, a third-year student who works in the lab of Hideki Takahashi, associate professor in the BMB department, studies how plants manipulate their root system architecture in response to nutrient availability in the soil.

“This is really important in understanding the basic principles of how plants maximize nutrient acquisition with the long-term goal of limiting the amount of fertilizer applied to the soils,” Lay said.

“I was drawn to this internship because I wanted to get experience outside of the traditional academic job, which is typically what working as a grad student predominantly trains you for,” Lay continued. “The internship has given me a better understanding of what careers are actually out there. This experience in Washington, D.C., definitely reaffirmed my choices in pursuing a career outside of academia.”

“A big take-away—I think for all three of us—was learning how to home in on our scientific message, our research goals and their impacts,” Corbett said. “I’m now a lot more aware of the audience that I’m talking to about my research and their potential level of understanding.”

“For me, the most valuable part of the internship was being able to engage directly with policy formation and seeing how my science and my research can be contextualized day to day,” Koenig said. “When we were at the ARS we were surrounded by scientists and we had the ability to communicate scientist-to-scientist. But when I was with legislative staff who didn’t have any scientific background, I had to alter the way I communicated. It was really valuable for me to see the whole process of how agriculture policy interacts with science policy, and learn how we can best communicate this as scientific thinkers.”

As part of her work at the American Seed Trade Association, Lay was asked to develop potential Tweets about the data she was collecting and the memos she was writing.

“I had to take this giant sphere of information, edit it down to two pages, and then distill it down to 140 characters; that was a really great practice in science communication,” Lay said. “It was a really cool experience to learn how to use Twitter for a professional purpose. And they’re actually using some of my Tweets right now!”