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Don B. Huntley College of Agriculture

Lessons Taking Root

Plant Science Students Tackle Global Issues During Demanding Summer Internships in India

By Steven K. Wagner

College of Agriculture - Blake Stark and Lucia Sellati spent the summer studying drought-tolerant food sources.

If the historic drought in California persists, farmers could turn to the water-sipping pigeon pea legume as a substitute for thirsty alfalfa fields. Drought-tolerant sorghum may provide a critical food source in the harsh climates of famine-prone countries. 

That’s what two Cal Poly Pomona seniors learned during an intensive summer internship in India. 

Plant science students Blake Stark and Lucia Sellati spent 11 weeks in Hyderabad, the capital city of the southern India state of Telangana, whose semi-arid climate and agrarian sub-environment made it an ideal research site. They evaluated plants that might thrive in difficult climates and help feed hungry populations. 

The internships are a hallmark of the university’s learn- by-doing approach. 

“The overriding goal was to help these students put into practice the plant science they’ve learned here at
 Cal Poly Pomona,” says Mary S. Holz-Clause, dean of the Don B. Huntley College of Agriculture. “International experiences can be so transformative in the lives of students, helping them understand that they have both a responsibility and an obligation to think beyond our own borders and recognize that they are part of a global community.” 

Stark and Sellati were part of plant-breeding projects at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), working with chickpea, pigeon pea and other food staples. ICRISAT is a nonprofit United Nations-funded organization that conducts agricultural research for plant development in Asia and Africa. The internships were funded by Jim Hicks, a longtime and staunch supporter of the Don B. Huntley College of Agriculture. 

Sellati worked for the Sorghum Breeding Department in ICRISAT’s Dryland Cereals Sector, examining drought tolerance. 

“We chemically blocked different water pathways in the sorghum plants to simulate drought, study the physiological effects, and pinpoint more resistant genotypes,” she says. 

According to Sellati, her research has at least one potentially significant application: Because India is a densely populated country, development of cereal crops, including sorghum, is crucial to feeding its people and those in famine-plagued nations.

Stark worked on a water-logging tolerance study for pigeon pea, an edible seed. Plants were grown in cement ponds that were filled to replicate stagnant water and screened for survival rates. He also assisted with a report focusing on increasing the global awareness of pigeon pea. 

“Pigeon pea works great for intercropping, can be used for fodder, has many medicinal uses and tastes delicious,” he says. “I believe there is a special niche for the use of pigeon pea in the United States because it is drought-tolerant and has extremely beneficial effects on the soil. Since California grows so much alfalfa, which is a high water-demanding crop, I believe we could save a lot of water, thus saving farmers money, by growing pigeon pea for fodder instead of alfalfa.” 

For Stark, from Brea, the research has led him on the path to graduate school and further study of plant science. 

“I learned a lot about many different aspects of plant breeding,” he says. “I learned how to make hybrid crosses essential for plant breeding. I also learned about male sterility and its usefulness in plant breeding as well as a couple of tricks to improve data collection and analysis. I was also reminded of the many variables that can affect research and how much time, effort and planning go into generating a scientifically sound experiment.” 

Sellati, of Monrovia, says the internship gave her many new skills, the most valuable one being data analysis. 

“I was able to experience every aspect of data analysis firsthand,” she says. “I feel as though I could utilize this skill and the overall experience in the future.” 

After graduation, she hopes to work in plant breeding or pathology and eventually enroll in graduate school. 

The internship also helped open her eyes to the world. 

“I got to see firsthand how agriculture is crucial in another country,” she says. “I saw small farmers treat agriculture as their livelihood, and they would be destitute without it. It further solidified the importance of agriculture and how universal it is.”