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ARS hosts institute for higher learning about alfalfa.

To Aimee Crago, what science is all about is "the feeling I had, when I finally realized something had been discovered and the information would be useful."

"Useful" might prove to be an understatement. The work she performed may help keep millions of dollars from being stolen from alfalfa producers by a plant disease.

During the last two summers, Crago, of Metairie, Louisiana, helped the Agricultural Research Service rate alfalfa plants for resistance to one of alfalfa's worst diseases. Yield loss from anthracnose, caused by the fungus, Colletotrichum trifolii, can easily reach $200 million nationally in years when severe epidemics strike.

In the summer of 1990, Crago spent 5 weeks working at an ARS lab near Washington, D.C. This nonpaying position was part of her internship with the Research Science Institute.

RSI is a program sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Education, a private nonprofit organization based in McLean, Virginia. CEE was created in 1984 by the late Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, generally considered the father of the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarine fleet.

In the summer of 1991, after earning her high-school diploma at Mount Carmel Academy in New Orleans, Crago returned to ARS as a summer employee. She also served as counselor for several "Rickoids," as RSI interns are known.

During both summers, Crago helped plant pathologist Nichole O'Neill in the Soybean and Alfalfa Research Laboratory, part of the agency's Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland.

Crago's work contributed to the rating of more than 2,000 strains of alfalfa through O'Neill's research program. The strains included commercial varieties and breeding lines as well as plants grown from seed stored in an ARS germplasm collection.

To rank alfalfa for anthracnose resistance, Crago grew thousands of seedlings in lab growth chambers. She sprayed them with a liquid solution of fungus spores and recorded how many survived. O'Neill compiled the results for use by commercial firms and by scientists in Pullman, Washington, at an ARS germplasm repository for alfalfa, beans, and many other plant species.

Until now, O'Neill points out, researchers and industry haven't had this kind of information in a standard format.

And while many alfalfa strains resist race 1 of the fungus, Crago's experiments confirmed that two breeding lines had rare, high resistance to race 2, which is a problem mainly in the Southeast.

A breeder plans to release one of the lines next year as a new, anthracnose-resistant commercial variety, O'Neill notes.

"Furthermore," she adds, "we're interested in the mechanism behind race 2 resistance and suspect it may differ from that in plants that withstand race 1. If we can identify the mechanism and the genes controlling it, we might be able to insert the genes into alfalfa plants. Then industry can develop new, highly resistant commercial varieties for farmers.

"It was wonderful for Aimee to see that her work here was used," O'Neill notes. "But it's easy for scientists to forget that even the things we see as routine--such as how to design an experiment so we can have confidence in the results--are valuable new experiences for students."

One of Crago's reports on her ARS experiments helped her win honors as a semifinalist in the Westinghouse Talent Search for 1990.

Thirteen RSI interns ran a variety of experiments at Beltsville last summer. Their scientist mentors were recruited by chemist James Saunders, a colleague of O'Neill's. Two dozen other D.C.-area agencies and private firms supplied mentors for the rest of the 103 RSI interns.

"Admiral Rickover rounded the institute to help our best students and teachers keep the United States competitive in science and technology," says CEE president Joann DiGennaro.

RSI's features make it fairly unique, she adds. "It's free, provides long-term followup and tracking, and selects interns--nearly all entering high-school seniors--entirely by merit."

In Washington, Rickoids live in a dormitory at George Washington University. A week of academic courses is followed by 4 weeks of internship and a final week during which students make oral and written presentations on the work they've done.

But vacation is not slighted: On weekends the interns go camping or visit the region's amusement parks, beaches, and other attractions.

"Two years ago," Crago says, "I didn't even know what alfalfa plants looked like, and I was apprehensive about spending my vacation studying them. But by the end of that first summer, my experience had proven to me that a career in research was what I wanted eventually."

Now attending Tulane University in New Orleans, she's considering a future in medical biochemical research.

A year ago, when she was honored at the White House as one of 141 Presidential Scholars, President Bush quoted Crago in his address. She had written earlier that "to be the person one wants to be, one needs to have a knowledge of all the people one could be, and education provides this knowledge."--By Jim De Quattro, ARS.

Nichole O'Neill is in the USDAARS Soybean and Alfalfa Research Laboratory, Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, 10300 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville, MD 20705-2350. Phone (301) 504-5331.

For further information on the Research Science Institute contact Joann P. DiGennaro, President, Center for Excellence in Education, 7710 Old Springhouse Rd., McLean, Virgina 22102. Phone (703) 448-9062.
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Title Annotation:Agricultural Research Service, Research Science Institute, research by Aimee Crago
Author:De Quattro, Jim
Publication:Agricultural Research
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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