Grant expands relationships and access to hands-on science experiences

A new grant at Washington State University will allow undergraduate students from WSU, Eastern Washington University, Lewis-Clark State College, and Gonzaga University get real-world agricultural research experience.

The USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates (REEU) grant will put students to work on field research and lab work centered on crops, including visits to farms to talk with agricultural stakeholders.

The program will culminate in a final project that students will present to their peers and advisors. Students from all four institutions will be eligible to apply for the project, which will be hosted at WSU.

“The heart of the program is reaching out to underrepresented groups to get hands-on scientific experience,” said Andrei Smertenko, an associate professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry (IBC) and the lead scientist on the grant. “It’s lab work combined with applied research and extension projects.”

Smertenko, seated, in a lab with a microscope behind him.
Andrei Smertenko

The nine-week summer program will give students at partner universities the opportunity to experience scientific research, while being paid for their work through the grant. The goal is to excite students’ interest in agriculture-related fields, exposing them to different aspects of agriculture and research.

“Most of our graduate students come from western Washington or other states,” Smertenko said. “We have limited applications from eastern Washington and Idaho. We hope to teach more students from our region about careers in agriculture.”

Building partnerships

Currently, there is little formal interaction between WSU’s agriculture faculty and colleagues at nearby institutions such as Eastern Washington University, Smertenko said. He is working to build collaborations so that partner faculty can recommend students for this new REEU program.

“This is exactly the kind of internship opportunity our students can benefit from,” said Rebecca Brown, a plant biologist and professor at EWU. “It gives them a chance to conduct high quality, agricultural research and get training that will improve their job prospects.  We look forward to working with the WSU team and will encourage our students to apply for this opportunity.”

The program also builds partnerships within WSU. The grant includes faculty from IBC, the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, WSU Extension, and the USDA Agricultural Research Service, which has scientists housed at WSU.

“We’ll be working together to develop projects, then guide students through the different stages,” Smertenko said. “We’re all excited and enthusiastic to work together, and with these new students.”

Starting up

The team has been working on funding for this program for over two years, and will recruit the first cohort for this program for the summer of 2022.

The grant, funded for nearly $500,000 over five years from USDA-NIFA, will provide the undergraduates income while working and learning.

“That’s so important,” Smertenko said. “These students we’re targeting may be non-traditional students or from backgrounds where they can’t afford to work for nine weeks unpaid.”

The team plans to focus on underrepresented populations, including WSU’s Native American Programs and the Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANRRS) student club.

“Many students don’t even know how to get started in agricultural careers,” Smertenko said. “This program will be an introduction and a helpful addition to their graduate school applications. It really plays into WSU’s land grant role and helps open people up to careers in agriculture.”