The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Education and Learning Initiative (NIFA-ELI) has awarded Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) and The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES) a grant to continue the Plant Health Fellows summer internship program for five years. Project leaders are Drs. Elizabeth Roberts and Rebecca Silady of SCSU, and Dr. Lindsay Triplett at CAES.
Roberts is a professor and the chair of the Biology Department, while Silady is an associate professor in the Biology Department.
In the face of population growth and climate change, global food security depends on having talented agricultural and food scientists, educators, regulatory officers, and policy makers. However, college students in the sciences are often not aware of or prepared for the many career opportunities related to crop health. Roberts, Silady, and Triplett created the Plant Health Fellows program in 2017 to build career awareness, skills, and confidence to help students pursue careers related to crop health.
In its first four years, the program trained 39 student fellows, of which roughly half were first-generation college students. Many of the alumni have gone on to start careers in plant health fields, and curriculum and lesson plans developed through the program were recently published in the peer reviewed journal Plant Health Instructor.
The new funding will allow the program to continue through the summer of 2026 and train an additional 50 students. Each spring, 10 students are selected from applications received nationally. For nine weeks starting each June, students participate in research projects mentored by CAES scientists on the theme of plant health, in fields such as plant pathology, microbial ecology, forestry, analytical chemistry, entomology, and urban agriculture.
The students also participate in weekly STEM leadership activities at SCSU and CAES, such as communication workshops, field trips to biotech companies, and career panels featuring scientists from the public, academic, and private sectors. The students live together in apartment housing on the SCSU campus.
The summer culminates in a group presentation at CAES Plant Science Day, an annual research showcase held at Lockwood Farm, 890 Evergreen Ave., in Hamden, Conn. This year’s Plant Science Day will be held on August 3 from 9 AM to 4 PM, and all are welcome to attend and view the Plant Health Fellows group project.
Of the 10 students who are currently participating in the program, three are Southern students: Brooke Isaacson, a junior majoring in biology; Mia Varney, a senior majoring in biology; and Sofia Shubin, a sophomore majoring in chemistry.
Current or future college students interested in applying for the 2023 Plant Health Fellows program are encouraged to visit the program website, southernct.edu/plant-health-fellows, to explore this rewarding opportunity.
As a program alumnus wrote, “I gained an immense amount of courage in a number of ways, both interpersonally and scientifically. This research experience paved a way for scientific understanding unlike any I had experienced before.”