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Student diversity good for MSU's ag sciences
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- They may not look like the typical Mississippi State University "aggie," but two Grenada High School graduates are not letting stereotypes stop them.
Ashley Andrews and Teresa Bryan have joined a growing group of young women who are realizing agricultural and environmental sciences are not just for the boys. They are also adding diversity to a field of study typically dominated by men.
"Many agricultural disciplines tend to attract a fairly narrow range of students -- traditional weed science graduate students are white males who majored in agriculture as undergraduate students," said Cade Smith, a plant and soil sciences research assistant in MSU's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "If you look at many pest-related disciplines, you would see that females, African-Americans and other non-white students are in the minority."
In the spring 2003 semester, for example, 23 students majored in agricultural pest management. All of those students were white and only one was female. Many other agricultural disciplines have similar demographics.
But Smith said he sees both professional and social benefits to attracting a broad range of students to the agricultural sciences.
"Many of our agricultural students have few opportunities to work with people of different cultures, races or genders before graduate school. So I place a premium on trying to bring people from different backgrounds and perspectives into the agricultural sciences," Smith said. "This allows those students with unjustified biases to gain experience that will probably challenge many of their opinions," he added.
So when the opportunity arose to work with the two Grenada High School students on their International Science Fair project, Smith and MSU environmental chemist Joe Massey were more than thrilled.
"Ashley and Teresa wanted to investigate the ability of plants to remove pesticides from agricultural runoff. To do so, the students focused on the ability of several plants to bind and uptake two insecticides," Massey explained. "Dr. Smith and I helped by developing a method to extract and quantify these insecticides."
Once this method was developed, the students were able to analyze their actual samples in MSU's weed science laboratory. In classroom discussions, the students covered a wide range of topics necessary for this type of research, including basic analytical and environmental chemistry, quality control, statistics and interpretation of results.
Massey said he was impressed with the students' enthusiasm for the project. This enthusiasm and interest allowed the students to actually absorb the material, which in turn gave them an advantage in the science fair competition.
"Both Teresa and Ashley wanted to understand every aspect of their project. They asked many great questions and took a lot of notes," Massey said. "As a result, they were able to answer the myriad of questions asked by the science fair judges."
Their technical competence and enthusiasm enabled the students to effectively compete at the division- and state-level competitions, earning them a trip to the 2003 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
Founded in 1950, the Intel ISEF is the world's largest pre-college international competition in science and engineering. This year's competition, held in Cincinnati, Ohio, involved more than 1,200 students from 40 nations who competed for scholarships, tuition grants, internships and scientific field trips.
Both Andrews and Bryan plan to attend MSU in the fall, and as a result of their science fair project, they have already spent more than a week on campus.
"Working on this project was very rewarding both for Ashley and Teresa and for us as scientists. It also shows how we all benefit by engaging in science projects with bright, energetic students," Massey said. "Given the issues that agriculture will face in the 21st century, we certainly need to do all that we can to attract the best and brightest students into our field."
The girls' high school biology teacher said the collaborative effort benefitted Grenada High as well. Previously, Sherry Cook said her students had a hard time competing successfully with other science fair students who worked with mentors from major universities or research facilities.
"This year, I began to contact scientists like Cade and Joe so that my students would be able to go to a competition like this and have a greater chance of winning," said Cook, who graduated from Grenada High with Smith. "I thought they would be able to help give the girls some ideas and/or help with developing a more complex project."
But what actually happened far exceeded Cook's expectations and helped the students to complete a successful project for the science fair.
"This project was, in my opinion, the best project we've had from Grenada," Cook said. "And although we didn't place at the International Fair, the girls had a wonderful experience and were able to learn so much from the entire process."
She said without the help of the MSU scientists, such an experience would not have been possible.
"Cade and Joe were great. They sat down for hours with the girls and helped them develop a testing plan, and then actually taught them to use the equipment for their testing," Cook said. "They put in hours of their personal time and expertise."