November 5, 2003 | By: Haven Miller
LEXINGTON, Ky.

In 2000, while Cathy Richardson Rehmeyer was teaching biology at her high school alma mater in Powell County, one of her favorite class projects enabled students to study chestnut blight.

“We received one of only 50 grants given out nationwide by Toyota, and we called it the American Chestnut Restoration Project,” she said.  “My students and I investigated the genetic diversity of the pathogen by culturing the fungus from cankers, while at the same time sending chestnut material to a researcher who was exploring the genetics of the remaining tree populations.”

The chestnut blight project reflected an interest in plant disease research that began for Rehmeyer in 1998 when she was a research intern in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture’s Department of Plant Pathology. Her experience working under the supervision of faculty member Chris Schardl, coupled with guidance from now-retired professor Lou Shain, motivated her to return to Powell County and conduct research projects with her students.  In 2002, while finishing her master’s degree in education at Morehead State University, she returned to UK’s College of Agriculture to begin doctoral studies in plant pathology.

“I was so impressed with the department I knew this was where I wanted to pursue my doctorate,” she said.

Her experience and dedication now are paying dividends.  Rehmeyer recently earned a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship to pursue her studies at UK.  The award, which is for $27,500 per year, will continue for three years.  In addition to the stipend, the award pays all tuition and fees plus student health insurance, research and travel expenses. 

“These fellowships are highly competitive, and we’re extremely proud of Cathy and gratified that we’re able to attract this caliber of individual to our graduate research program,” said David Smith, plant pathology department chair.

Working with research faculty member Mark Farman, Rehmeyer is conducting genome (genetic material) research with the fungus that causes “rice blast” disease in rice plants, and gray leaf spot disease in Kentucky grasses. 

“The main problem is that this fungus evolves very rapidly, and in a few years you have fungi in the field that are capable of causing disease on previously resistant rice strains,” Rehmeyer said.  “So we’re looking at a genomic level as to how this organism is capable of overcoming the plant’s defenses so quickly.”

There is currently a worldwide effort to sequence the genome of the fungus in order to better understand the interactions between fungi and their host plants.  Rehmeyer said her work is designed to contribute to this larger effort.

“I’m targeting the chromosome ends, which are underrepresented in genome databases, to contribute to the finishing of the genome sequencing project.  I hope to identify genes that allow the fungus to establish infections in the host or produce elicitors (chemical signals) that trigger the host’s defenses,” she said.

Her graduate work also has earned her international recognition.  She is one of only six U.S. graduate students invited to a joint U.S.-Japan seminar on plant pathogen interactions this fall.

As the recipient of an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, Rehmeyer joins an elite group of students affiliated with UK’s College of Agriculture.  NSF Fellow Julianne Forman currently is pursuing her master’s degree in UK’s Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering.  Angela Green, who earned her bachelor’s degree in biosystems and agricultural engineering in 2002 and will complete her master’s degree at UK this year, plans to pursue doctoral studies next fall. Craig Duvall, who received a bachelor’s degree in biosystems and agricultural engineering in 2001, is working on his doctoral degree at the Georgia Tech/Emory University Wallace H. Coulter joint department of biomedical engineering.     

“These NSF awards earned by both current and former students represent national prominence for our College of Agriculture and for the University of Kentucky, and reflect upon the quality of the programs that either prepared them or are drawing them to UK,” said Rich Gates, chair of the College of Agriculture’s Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering.  “Either way, it’s a feather in our cap.”

NSF Graduate Fellowship recipients are outstanding master’s or doctoral students in the mathematical, physical, biological, engineering, behavioral and social sciences.

Contact: 

Sources: David Smith, 859-257-7445; Rich Gates, 859-257-3000