UK Ag Biotech Day showcases diversity for high schoolers
By Ray Bowman
(A version of this article first appeared in The Farmer’s Pride, August 17 issue)
Many high school students with an interest in sciences may not be aware of the myriad of opportunities available to them when they begin their college career.
“Most of the students who come here and major in biology or think about science think about it because they want to be doctors,” according to Dr. Carol Hanley from the UK Tracy Farmer Center for the Environment. “This program introduces them to other options, and that’s why it’s so important.”
In July, the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment hosted Ag Biotech Day, a free event designed to introduce high school students to career opportunities available to them in agriculture.
“Our goal is to provide a forum for people to ask questions and see the kind of research that’s going on, talk with researchers about what they’re doing and why it’s important,” according to Ellen Crocker, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Forestry who, along with Dr. Hanley and others, organized the event. “There’s so much great research going on here, and I think the public isn’t aware of it.”
“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what biotechnology is,” Crocker continued. “It’s a huge diversity of different tools, different techniques, and different applications.”
Dr. Paul Vincelli, an extension professor and Provost’s Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology says he hopes the Open House helps clear up some of the misunderstanding and starts some necessary conversations. “Ellen and I discussed this issue of how do we find a way to humanize biotechnology and this was the plan we came up with,” he notes. “At a minimum, we’re having a chance to bring potential students to campus and interact with professors and other students in the ag biotech program, and that’s good for UK, it’s good for the students to have those choices.”
Dr. Vincelli says it’s important to show that “there are real people, especially young people with ideals” working in the field of biotech who are excited about the work they are doing and its relevance to society. “Every one of them has an interest in trying to make the world a little bit of a better place.”
As the students, parents and other interested individuals toured the labs during the open house, they were introduced to research being conducted in seed development, forest health threats, soil and plant bacteria and plant viruses. Topics of discussion ranged from improving soybean genetics to finding better methods to fight invasive insects like the highly destructive emerald ash borer.
Dr. Crocker stressed that biotechnology is not as new and mysterious as some people think. “The fact that we have the crops that we have today is because biotechnologists have been selecting the best version of corn, the best version of your favorite fruit or vegetable for hundreds of years. That’s biotechnology, just like genetic engineering is.”