Students explore modern agriculture tech with new WSU IAREC internship

PROSSER, Wash. – Six students from two Hispanic-serving institutions in Yakima Valley explored careers in agriculture research through a new summer internship program at Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center (IAREC).

Hispanic-serving institutions – or HSIs – are colleges and universities where Hispanic students comprise at least 25% of the student population.

“This was an opportunity for undergraduates to learn about advances in modern agriculture,” said Naidu Rayapati, director of IAREC. “There are so many science opportunities in agricultural fields, from robots picking apples to computerized irrigation systems. This was a chance for students to understand how interdisciplinary team research helps to build agriculture tools and smart technologies for the precision agriculture of the future.”

A group of students in orange safety vests pose on a white pickup with stacks of grapes.
Left to right: Emma Moe (Ste. Michelle Wine Estates), Maria Mireles (WSU), Lexie McDaniel (WSU), Polet Torres and Kelly Wendling (CBC) Top: Bernadette Gagnier (WSU), Charity Harmon (CBC)

Students from Columbia Basin College (CBC) and Heritage University (HU) rotated between Washington State University faculty and USDA scientists in different areas of agriculture, such as plant ecology, plant genetics, crop and soil sciences, and horticulture, involving fruit trees and grapes.

“This internship taught me agriculture is not just about working hard outside; there is a lot of technical science behind it,” said Polet Torres, student at Colombia Basin whose goal is to be an agronomist.

Students were able to use the internship to attain credits for an approved course or conduct research toward an assistantship.

“When we talk about operating tractors, nowadays, we’re talking about computerized, driverless tractors with GPS systems,” said Rayapati. “Today, we can use advanced tech tools like drones to survey crops in real time for indicators of different stresses and apply remedial measures,” he said.

Interns were involved in collecting fruit samples in orchards, and soil and leaf tissue samples to analyze in the lab.

“My favorite part was going out to all the farms and orchards to see how some of the diseases are being managed. I didn’t know how much went into organizing a crop field, or how many problems there could be in the orchard,” said Xavier Martinez, and environmental science major studying at Heritage University.

Martinez and his colleagues assisted faculty with setting up new experiments and analyzing data collected from previous seasons. “This is a great learning experience to find out which agriculture career you might want to pursue,” he said.

Kellie Wendling is studying agriculture production at CBC, and worked on lentil germination, alfalfa research, and plant tissue culture. “Everyone I have worked with has been so helpful and ready to share their knowledge.

Wendling said she was most excited to learn more about viticulture, the science of growing grapes. “There is such an abundance of research and hands-on activity going on here. It is a great place to be an intern.”

Rayapati said one advantage of the internship program is bringing together professionals from different countries and cultures to learn science, but it also enriches personal experiences, allowing interns from different backgrounds to more fully collaborate with one another.

“Problems are complex. To solve problems, we need expertise from different disciplines, faculty, and institutions. When we come together, we maximize opportunities to bring additional resources and train highly competent future workforce to tackle complex problems,” he said.

The dual grants from NSF and USDA-NIFA will allow the internship to be available to students from Columbia Basin College and Heritage University for two more summers.

Students interested in internship opportunities for summer 2022 can contact their college advisor.