June 11, 2020 | By: Katie Pratt
Lexington, Ky.

Three graduate students in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment have received a predoctoral fellowship from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Through the fellowship, Allyssa Kilanowski, Staci McGill and Tim Shull have received funds from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to pursue a research project of their choice.

The predoctoral fellowship program helps to develop new scientists and professionals to enter research, education and/or extension fields in the food and agricultural sciences within the private sector, government or academia.

“The aim of these fellowships is to cultivate future leaders who are able to solve emerging agricultural challenges of the 21st century,” said Robert Houtz, UK associate dean for research and director of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station. “This is a highly competitive program, and the fact that the college has three recipients is a testimony to the excellent research programs we have.”

A student in the departments of Entomology and Biology, Kilanowski will study aspects of insect dispersal, which is how insects spread to other crops and areas, as part of her fellowship. Under the advisement of UK professors Charles Fox in entomology and David Westneat, a biologist in the College of Arts and Sciences, her project will assess and evaluate the extent that vibrations of feeding beetle larvae serve as a cue for dispersal to other areas. For example, more feeding larvae within stored grain will cause more vibrations than areas containing just a few feeding larvae.

In addition, Kilanowski will compare genetic differences in the reproductive traits of beetles that spread long distances and those that stay put. She hopes to determine how the two behaviors alter the ability of the beetles to spread and establish new populations. Her findings may help scientists better understand how traits associated with insect dispersal could be used for better insect management. As part of the project, she will develop a new lab and curricula for undergraduate students in UK’s Introduction to Biology course and present her findings to her peers, academics and professional entomologists.

“My ambition is to develop an academic research program that applies novel, conceptual research approaches to conservation and management,” said Kilanowski, a Plymouth, New Hampshire native. “My current research focuses on insects, but my research program can apply to multiple species, such as mammals and fish, and I look forward to expanding on my dissertation throughout my career to include other organisms.”

A student in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, McGill’s research project will develop ways to improve the air quality of indoor arenas to make the facilities healthier for humans and horses. Under the advisement of UK assistant professor Morgan Hayes, McGill’s research will explore designs that can aid in reducing the environmental concerns of indoor arenas such as dust, poor ventilation and excessive moisture. It will also explore the best footing materials and management.

“I love being able to go to farms and help them provide the best environments for their horses,” she said. “Ideally, my career after graduate school will continue to focus on how to help the equine industry as an agricultural engineer whether that be in extension, as a consultant or in some way I haven’t discovered yet.”

From her findings, McGill will develop design guidelines and recommendations for engineers, project managers, construction companies and members of the equine industry on how to build better indoor arenas. She also plans to create extension publications, presentations and materials for the equine industry and curriculum focused on indoor arenas. She is originally from Chesapeake, Virginia.

A student in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, Shull’s research will explore ways to suppress weeds using allelopathy techniques. Allelopathy is an evolutionary mechanism that allows plants to produce and release chemicals that negatively affect the growth of surrounding plants. In a previous study, Shull, who works under UK associate professor Jan Smalle, found a link between plant hormone signaling networks and the allelopathic capacity of dopamine. In this project, Shull will use genetic sequencing technologies to identify and characterize genes in plants that make them resistant to the detrimental effects of dopamine. His long-term goal for the study is to develop a weed suppression technology that uses dopamine to control weeds, reducing the need for broad-spectrum herbicide applications in cropping systems.

“I am currently most motivated by research that is aimed at the production of agricultural biotechnology that improves food quality and/or decreases cost of food production while maintaining environmental stewardship,” said Shull, a St. Charles, Missouri native. “This kind of research motivates me because it is a clear avenue to improving quality of life, especially for those living in abject poverty.”

Contact: 

Robert Houtz, rhoutz@uky.edu; Tim Shull, tesh224@g.uky.edu; Staci McGill, staci.mcgill@uky.edu; Allyssa Kilanowski, allyssa.kilanowski@uky.edu