Early growth in plant science

For high school students, the transition is significant from predictable, in-class laboratory work to the more abstract and unpredictable outcomes of real-world research in a professional lab. Sparks builds a strong foundation in both research and plant science, helping them to grasp a clearer understanding of the topics they might want to study in college and beyond.

“This is for them to find their own answers and to understand that we don’t necessarily know the outcome,” Sparks said. “If we did, we wouldn’t necessarily be doing the experiment.”

Now retired after a successful career in plant breeding, Ferriss is thrilled with the internship program in the Sparks Lab, which gives aspiring scientists an early, hands-on look into plant science. So is Sparks.

“It’s indescribable, this contribution and how [Ferriss] has changed these students’ lives, and opened their minds to a new possibility and new careers that they had not been considering before they started this internship,” Sparks said.

Ferriss said he is a firm believer that internships are critical in opening students’ minds and building their networks. Thanks to his contributions, the laboratory experience piqued Danthuluri and Kim’ interest in plant science, a discipline that is critical in feeding the world while protecting the planet.

“As we look at the food production today, there is a worry about how climate change will impact it,” Ferriss said. “There needs to be greater research and development applied to food production if we are going to sustain our life going forward.”

Digging into the research

The aspiring scientists tackled botany research questions throughout the experience.

Danthuluri investigated the impact of planting density on the flowering of corn, surveying how much corn could be successfully grown in a single area. He concluded that competition elicits a shade response, meaning when corn is grown closely together, the plants shade one another. The shade encourages each plant to compete for sunlight to grow just as strong as those already accessing the most sun.

This research question was one that Danthuluri, now a high school senior with interests in microbiology and molecular biology, could only tackle with the resources found in a professional laboratory.

“They had much greater and advanced technologies and facilities, so this really prepared me for my future,” he said. “It really showed me the value of communicating and collaborating with other people.

Kim added, “Since this is my first independent research project, I hadn’t realized how much time would need to be put into the experiment, so I feel like I’ve learned a lot from that.”

Ferriss fondly remembers traveling with Teel to a research station in Millsboro — visiting farms, conducting research and having wonderful conversations about science. Fifty years later, Sparks filled the same role as Teel, providing the mentorship that will give Newark residents Danthuluri and Kim the knowledge and confidence needed to prepare for meaningful scientific careers.

New students in the lab

After reading about how meaningful the internship experience was for Danthuluri and Kim, Ferriss jumped back in to sponsor two new students — Therese Kim and Taran Kermani. A senior at Charter School of Wilmington, Kermani is interested in a career in biological research. Kim, a junior at Newark Charter High School, is interested in biology and environmental science.

Under the guidance of Sparks and UD scientist Teclemariam Weldekidan, the pair spent the summer in the outdoor field laboratory to study the effect of artificial selection for adaptation of tropical corn. Among other projects, the students learned the basics of plant breeding by making cross pollinations and collecting agronomic data.

“It showed me the ignored and neglected but pressing concern of how to feed the rapidly growing world population in spite of the decreasing land area and limited resources, a mounting.

issue I’d never considered before,” Kim said. “It taught me that the way to save the world is through plant breeding and increasing crop yield, one generation at a time.”

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