Four WSU grad students selected for 2023-2024 ASEV scholarships

The American Society for Enology and Viticulture (ASEV) provides more than $100,000 in annual scholarship support for North American students studying viticulture, enology, and related fields. This year, four Washington State University graduate students are among the 25 individuals selected to receive the highly competitive scholarships.

“ASEV’s support is foundational in our students’ efforts to stay enrolled, immerse themselves in the educational experience WSU provides, and ultimately give back to the industry,” said WSU Department of Viticulture and Enology Chair Jean Dodson Peterson. “Many of our students are the first in their families to attend college or are considered non-traditional students. They bring new perspectives into the classroom and have innovative ways to address industry issues.”

Founded in 1950 and encompassing some 1,600 members, ASEV is the main scientific society for the U.S. grape and wine industry. Students can apply for ASEV’s Traditional Scholarship, which has no predetermined amount, or its Presidents’ Award for Scholarship in Enology and Viticulture, a special scholarship of $12,500 for applicants who exceed Traditional Scholarship expectations. Checks are made out directly to students, who determine how they want to use the funds.

“Cultivating and supporting the next generation that will lead our industry is essential,” said ASEV Executive Director Dan Howard. “The ASEV has always supported a broad scholarship program that not only recognizes academic excellence, but also student passion, engagement, and leadership — qualities essential to the success of our industry.”

All four 2023-2024 WSU awardees received ASEV Traditional Scholarships and are decidedly passionate about their various areas of research:

Bernadette Gagnier: Finding sustainable alternatives for nematode management

A woman stands in a field, holding a bucket and equipment. Behind her is a pickup truck, a driveway, and a line of trees.
Bernadette Gagnier at work in the field. (Photo courtesy of Bernadette Gagnier)

Bernadette Gagnier is researching sustainable alternatives for root-knot nematode management in Washington vineyards, with potential strategies including cover crops, fallow ground, and planting on rootstocks.

“We look at vineyards holistically and explore integrated pest management strategies that are a little kinder to the planet but still efficient and work for growers,” said Gagnier, a horticulture PhD candidate who plans to graduate in spring 2024.

Though ASEV is a national organization, Gagnier notes that it still feels small and personal, with many opportunities to develop close relationships with other members.

“ASEV has been incredibly supportive the entire time I’ve been in grad school,” said Gagnier, who was a Presidents’ Award recipient last year and presented her research at ASEV’s 2022 and 2023 conferences. “I’ve received a scholarship each year I’ve been a grad student, and I’m so glad to receive one more year of financial support from them. ASEV doesn’t only care about the research: They also care about student wellbeing and guiding us. That’s something I really appreciate.”

Stephen Onayemi: Preventing the spread of a devastating virus

Originally from Nigeria, Stephen Onayemi witnessed his father lose nearly half of his crops to pest damage during harvest. Inspired to find a solution, he earned a bachelor’s degree in crop production and protection.

Professional photo of Stephen Onayemi
Stephen Onayemi is currently pursuing a doctorate in entomology. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Onayemi)

“I saw the importance of protecting crops when it comes to food sustainability and security,” Onayemi said. “It has a very high impact on lives around the world.”

After obtaining a master’s degree in entomology from WSU in 2021, he chose to pursue a doctorate in the same subject. For his dissertation, Onayemi is investigating how artificially produced pheromones can stop the spread of grape leafroll disease in the vineyard by preventing male grape mealybugs from locating females.

Onayemi, who hopes to graduate in spring 2024, said the ASEV scholarship will alleviate stress as cost-of-living expenses continue to rise, allowing him to focus solely on his research.

“The financial support cushions the effects of inflation,” said Onayemi, who was a runner-up for the Presidents’ Award. “The scholarship will help me procure books for research and assist with rent. It’s a huge relief, and I was so glad and honored to receive it.”

Jonathan Brumley: Finding a natural method for lowering wine’s alcohol concentration

Jonathan Brumley stands in front of stacks of wine barrels.
Jonathan Brumley is pursuing a master’s degree in food science, with a wine microbiology focus. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Brumley)

As an undergraduate at the University of Idaho, Jonathan Brumley took a class called “Intro to Vines and Wines,” sparking an initial interest in fermentation science. Now enrolled at WSU, Brumley is pursuing a master’s degree in food science, with a wine microbiology focus. His research involves studying the use of non-Saccharomyces yeasts in wine production.

“Over the last 20 to 30 years, vineyard practices and climate change have caused wine’s average alcohol concentration to increase,” said Brumley, who is on track to graduate in spring 2024. “We’re trying to find a natural method that lowers alcohol concentration. Non-Saccharomyces yeasts, which are naturally found in the vineyard, can metabolize some of the sugar and decrease alcohol concentration.”

This is the second time Brumley has received the Traditional Scholarship, and he is grateful to have extra funds for tuition, student fees, and more.

“I was blown away by ASEV’s contribution,” said Brumley. “This lightens the burden of worrying about how I will cover my expenses.”

Ramesh Pilli: Helping the tree fruit industry overcome heat-related challenges

Ramesh Pilli, who began his PhD in horticulture this semester, is based at WSU’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center at Wenatchee, Wash. After previously receiving an ASEV scholarship as a student at North Dakota State University (NDSU), Pilli was surprised to be selected again this year.

Ramesh Pilli stands in front of a bush, with a road and tree trunks in the background.
Ramesh Pilli is working to address the physiological aspects of pome fruit problems. (Photo courtesy of Ramesh Pilli)

“It’s pretty amazing,” he said. “I didn’t think I would be chosen this time because I’m doing the same research.” 

Pilli has long been interested in plant breeding and genetics. While earning his master’s degree at NDSU, Pilli conducted research on the genes responsible for cold hardiness in grapevines.

At WSU, he is investigating the genomics and transcriptomics of apples, pears, and other fruits, working to address the physiological aspects of pome fruit problems. As the climate continues to change, Pilli hopes his research will help those in the tree fruit industry.

“Heat is a major problem for tree fruit growers,” Pilli said. “I’m focusing on how I can contribute and find solutions for them.”