Kennesaw State University senior and Kennesaw resident Rebecca Webster’s research project on the parasitic Harper’s Dodder (Cuscuta harperi) plant’s ability to select certain plant hosts based on smell won the Top Poster Award at the Birla Carbon Symposium, at which the College of Science and Mathematics officially recognized 10 new Birla Carbon Scholars.
The scholarship program is designed to provide 10 KSU students with $4,000 stipends for summer research in science and mathematics. Each student scholar works side-by-side with a faculty researcher on a project, which deals with topics ranging from radio cesium soil contamination to the evolution of appendages.
“Many of our students are not able to explore summer research programs because they must work full time between the spring and fall semesters,” said CSM Dean Mark Anderson. “This stipend allows them time and financial freedom to expand their research skills outside of the classroom and continue Kennesaw State’s tradition of academic excellence.”
Birla Carbon’s North American region chief technology officer Dale Clark and Birla Carbon Scholars director of human resources Terence Norman along with several judges from Birla Carbon, reviewed posters summarizing the students’ research on display in the Carmichael Student Center’s University Rooms on the Kennesaw Campus.
“Without students willing to do this kind of work, this partnership between Birla Carbon and Kennesaw State University would not be possible,” said Clark. “Like us, you share a passion to learn, to do research and to innovate.”
The event marked the fourth year of a five-year partnership with Birla Carbon, which has allowed the college’s 10 Birla Carbon Scholars to participate in summer research opportunities. Clark said four KSU graduates are currently working at the firm’s Marietta lab and technology center with a fifth graduate starting to work soon.
The scholars program was developed in April 2014 with a $250,000 pledge from Birla Carbon for a five-year annual gift of $50,000 to support research opportunities for students in KSU’s CSM. The program has awarded 40 KSU students each a $4,000 stipend since 2014.
“These are all very impressive projects that the students were given the opportunity to work on full time, thanks to the generous support of Birla Carbon,” Anderson said.
Webster took the top prize for her research into how the parasitic Harper’s Dodder plant selects its host based on its smell.
“These dodder plants are a huge agricultural pest, and they really like tomato plants, onions and alfalfa,” she said. “Not a lot is known about this foraging behavior in the Dodders. So, I wanted to try to find out which genes are involved.”
Webster, who is originally from Colombia, plans to graduate this spring and may work for a year in international conservation before pursuing graduate studies.
“The most amazing thing about this plant is its ability to smell other plants,” she said. “I’m trying to identify the particular genes that are responsible for this behavior.”
This summer, she worked beside her faculty mentor, assistant professor of Biology Joel McNeal, in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology.
“Rebecca’s great, very bright and very industrious,” McNeal said. “Even before she began her research, she wanted to read every related paper on the subject.”
Along with the $4,000 stipend each scholar received, Webster received an additional $2,000 in travel funds to present her research at a national or regional conference of her choice.
Anderson provided the group with an update on the past three Birla Carbon Top Poster Award winners.
“Our first symposium winner was Sam Keenan, who is now in medical school in Tennessee. The winner of the 2015 Symposium, Eric Gabilondo, graduated from KSU in Fall 2016 with plans to pursue a Ph.D. in physical chemistry or chemical physics,” said Anderson. “And the winner of the 2016 Symposium, Katerina Slavicinska, presented research at the 252nd American Chemical Society National Meeting and Exposition in San Francisco. Katerina plans to pursue graduate studies in either astrochemistry or astrobiology.”
This year’s scholars and their faculty mentors were:
♦ Kaylee Bronson, mentored by Martin Hudson
♦ Neil Dodd, mentored by Heather Abbott-Lyon
♦ Ian Duncan, mentored by Heather Sutton
♦ Reagan Hooper, mentored by Daniela Tapu
♦ Beryl Khakina, mentored by Susan Smith
♦ Kaveh Kiani, mentored by Anton Bryantsev
♦ Hayley Milner, mentored by Scott Nowak
♦ Kevin Patel, mentored by Carol Chrestensen
♦ Rahiq Rahman, mentored by Donald McGarey
♦ Rebecca Webster, mentored by Joel McNeal
Applicants for the annual scholarship must be freshmen, sophomores or juniors during the spring semester in which they apply for the program and have a minimum 3.0 GPA. In addition to the scholars program, funds from the Birla Carbon gift will be used to provide research supplies needed for faculty assisting students and supplies needed for the end-of-the-term symposium.
Birla Carbon is the world’s largest manufacturer of carbon black, which is used to make everything from tires to plastics to electronics. It is a flagship business of the $41 billion Aditya Birla Group, a multinational conglomerate based in Mumbai, India. Birla Carbon’s Technology Laboratories are located in Marietta and Mumbai.