Cross-university internships at Prosser research & Extension center help students, mentors grow

Selenia Oronia at entomology lab
Columbia Basin College student Selina Oronia works in David James’ entomology lab at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center at Prosser. Oronia was one of nine students from CBS and Toppenish-based Heritage University to gain research experience at Prosser this year.

Nine students from private and two-year institutions in Central Washington gained firsthand experience in wine science, entomology, fruit breeding, and engineering this year at Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center at Prosser.

Completing an eight-week program in September, six interns from Columbia Basin College in Pasco, and three from private, non-profit Heritage University in Toppenish, learned about careers in science while gaining hands-on skills in orchards, vineyards, and laboratories with USDA and WSU scientists and students.

CBC and Heritage University are Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and Heritage is also a Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institution—one of only two institutions in the country with both designations.

“Internships are a pathway for students to learn about different disciplines and how to pursue those that most interest them,” said Naidu Rayapati, director of IAREC. “They work alongside WSU students and faculty as they discover what happens here to gain meaningful learning experiences.”

Head shot of Rayapati
Naidu Rayapati, Director, WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center.

WSU cherry and stone fruit breeder Per McCord, entomologist David James, viticulturist Markus Keller, and agricultural engineer Lav Khot were mentors who put a rotating group of interns to work in research side by side with IAREC graduate students and post-doctoral researchers.

“The main idea is to get visiting students to come away with a broad, solid understanding of how we use science and cooperate,” said Keller, Distinguished Professor in Viticulture.

Seize every opportunity

Columbia Basin College intern Shaina Griffitts worked with Khot’s team of agricultural engineers, collecting vineyard data from experiments using drones and mobile sprayers. After completing her associate degree at CBC, Griffitts plans to transfer to WSU next year to pursue a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

“I take every opportunity to learn something new,” she said. “I always go for it, because it’s there for a reason.”

Griffitts’ standout moment was helping doctoral students fly an automated drone as part of a vineyard experiment.

“That’s so cool!” Griffitts reacted as the machine launched itself, flew its route, and landed with the push of a button. “I’m interested in how things work mechanically. Putting things together is the best part.”

From the experience, Griffitts learned not to be afraid to ask questions.

“If you don’t get something at first, ask to phrase it in a different way,” she said.  “Your mentors want you to understand what they’re doing.”

McCord and Van Corbach Greenhouse
Visiting intern Elizabeth Van Corbach, right, works with Per McCord, associate professor in stone fruit breeding and genetics, collecting cherry tree samples for DNA extraction. IAREC faculty and graduate students acted as mentors to students as they gained real-world work experience in August and September.

Hosting an intern demands time for training, “but it’s great to help someone gain an education, and an extra pair of hands helps us take on additional projects and get them done faster,” said McCord, an associate professor in stone fruit breeding and genetics, who thanked his intern for an excellent experience.

“The interns we had this year, I would hire in a heartbeat,” Keller said. “They were inquisitive and asked a lot of good questions. In no time at all, they learned techniques and applied them by themselves.”

Mutually beneficial exchange

Co-led by IAREC and CBC and supported by the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture’s Hispanic Serving Institutions Educational Grant, the internship program is in its second active year after being delayed due to the pandemic. The exchange has been positively received by students, said Sandya Kesoju, CBC Agriculture Education, Research & Development Director, and may expand to include more interns from additional colleges.

“I am glad they were exposed to different learning environments,” Kesoju said. “One student extended his internship to December, and another was invited to work part-time, collecting and identifying insects.”

Internships helped faculty learn how to better engage with students, and encourage graduate students to become mentors, Rayapati said. They also open a door for further education and experience, developing contemporary skills needed for a rapidly changing workforce.

“We’re primarily undergraduate, so we look to partners to help students see the fields that are available to them and learn what it’s like to go to graduate school,” said Jessica Black, director of Heritage University’s Center for Indigenous Health, Culture, and the Environment. “World-class research is happening just down the road from us at Prosser, while Heritage is beneficial for WSU because we’re helping train the next generation of scientists to work with Latinx and Native American students. If we want to diversity agriculture, these are the partnerships that can do that.”

The IAREC experience is local and very relevant to students, many of whom have family ties to agriculture.

“Internships show them that you can use your knowledge and translate that to a solid career,” Black said. “Once they see what research is like and experience it step by step, they realize that they can excel.”