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Winning with Val-Sal.

Brandon Bernard doubts he'll ever forget his summer with Mississippi.

Not in Mississippi the state; with Mississippi the bull, 2,400 pounds of Brahman brawn, with a deceptively intimidating glare that could make a newcomer feel chills even on a steamy summer afternoon in Arkansas.

Barnard, co-valedictorian of the Class of '91 at Booneville High School in Booneville, Arkansas, met Mississippi through the Acricultural Research Service's Valedictorian-salutatorian Program, commonly known as Val-sal.

This program offers full-time summer employment at ARS research facilities to valedictorians and salutatorians of local high schools. Regardless of whether these high-achieving, students accept the job offers. they receive a certificate of appreciation from ARS for their academic diligence.

Started in 1989 as a pilot project in ARS' Southern Plains Area, which includes Arkansas, Oklahoma. Texas, and New Mexico, Val-Sal is now available throughout the agency.

"If a student has the basic drive to do well in high school, he or she already has one component we need in ARS," explains Floyd P. Horn, Southern Plains area director and initiator of the program.

"That demonstrated accomplishment is of special interest to us," Horn says. "This could help fill the gap in scientists and engineers that this country appears to be facing, in the coming, century."

When 18-year-old Brandon Barnard reported for work at the ARS South Central Family Fan-ns Research Center at Booneville last June, "that first day I was expecting, to get a tour and meet a lot of people," he recalls.

Instead, research leader Michael A. Brown immediately started Bernard and co-worker Tracy Whitchead, the Booneville High salutatorian, on making mysterious little wire cages.

Neither Bernard nor Whitehead knew the puipose of the little ca,esbut they soon found out.

Right away, we met the animals, found out what they...did...and collected it," Bamard relates.

The youngsters'job, in simple terms, was to follow beef cattle until the animals defecated, wait 15 minutes to give pesky horn flies a chance to move in and lay eggs in the feces, then collect the feces in the little caes.

The wire would keep any insects from getting in or out," says Whitehead. We'd keep the enclosed feces in a greenhouse for a week, then check it for hom fly larvae."

While the work was hardly Iamorous, the findings were important: determining whether the feces of cattle grazin certain types of grass, such as fescue infected with a funcus, is less hospitable to developing horn fly larvae. The results could offer important clues to controllin, this major pest of grazing cattle.

Mississippi the bull, with his "mean stare," was only one of the memorable denizens of the pasture.

There was Mountain Dew, a Brahman yearling," says Whitehead. "She was fiery, but she could be funny, too. We were following these cattle as closely as you get without them running, away."

As the days passed, the students quickly became comfortable with the cattle as they learned that beneath those intimidating, exteriors Ilirked fairly docile personalities. Other facets of the job, however, required more adjustment.

Working with the cow patties was really the hardest thing to get used to." Whitehead says. I've ot the cleanest hands in town, because I'm always washing them."

The students' duties went beyond collecting cow manure. Researchers at the Booneville lab also regularly milked the Brahman. Angus, and crossbred cows to check differences in milk production depend'ing on the tvpe of forage grazed.

The students weighed the milk, homogenized it. and shipped it away for milkfat and protein analysis. In addition, they collected rass samples to undergo near-infrared analysis for protein content.

Now studying, for a degree in pharmacology at the University of Central Arkansas at Conway, Whitehead says her summer with ARS was an important learning experience.

Until I began working with ARS. the closest I'd ever been to agriculture was when my dad planted a garden," adds Bamard, now studying business administration and religion at Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia, Arkansas. "I learned a lot from my job at Booneville. and I want to try to apply what I've leamed to life."

While Whitehead and Barnard worked for ARS only through the summer, fellow Val-Sal participant Stacy Kindt of Bryan. Texas, is still at work at ARS' Food Animal Protection Research Laboratory at College Station, Texas, as a part-time biological aide.

Kindt, 18, was valedictofian of tlie Bryan High School Class of '91 and is now attending Texas A&M University as an economics major.

Her duties at ARS entail helping scientists try to crack the code of brain chemicals called neuropeptides in various pest insects. These researchers hope to find some way: to use altered versions of the neuropeptides as a more environmentally safe means of controlling specific insects.

Kindt works with research entomologist Shirlee M. Meola. She has learned the intricacies of tissue preparation to help Meola visualize the location of peptides throughout the insect's nervous system.

"I prepare slides of serial sections of mosquitoes, cockroaches, and flies." says Kindt. I also develop film and print pictures.

Slicing up bugs wasn't that pleasant at first," she admits. Also, I've been down to see the roach colony; you open up the case and all the roaches start running around. And these are pretty big ones!"

Still. "I am doing more than just making money." she adds. "I am learning a lot about basic research and how it can be applied in the attempt to develop new methods of insect control. and I feel I am doing some good with my work."

"Part of the rationale of the Valedictorian-salutatorian program is to find someone to run the store when we've retired." says Michael Brown, the research leader at the Booneville facility,. "The pro,rai-n hasn't been in operation for very many years, but even so, I think it's already a success."
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Title Annotation:Agricultural Research Service's Valedictorian-Salutatorian Program
Author:Hays, Sandy Miller
Publication:Agricultural Research
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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