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Two Ag Engineering Students Win NSF Awards

Groggy with sleep, undergraduate Grace Danao answered the 3 a.m. phone call. On the other end of the line was Nermeen Aboellela, one of her best friends, who was cryptically suggesting that Grace check the National Science Foundation Web site—right now. Danao, a 23 year old from Arcadia, Florida, thought Aboellela, an accomplished chemistry major, had probably won one of the nation's most prestigious fellowships. However, as her computer hummed to life and the site emerged in the darkness, it was Danao's own name she read among the 2000 NSF Graduate Fellowship awardees.

"I almost fell off my chair. I had to log out and reload the NSF Web page to see if it was true," she says. "I must have checked that Web page at least 10 times each day to see if my name was still there."

Photo of Grace Danao and Fred PayneGrace Danao plans to do fiber optics sensor research with Fred Payne, professor of Agricultural Engineering.

Meanwhile, Erin Wilkerson, who had just begun her biosystems and agricultural engineering master's program at the University of Kentucky, learned of her award through fellow graduate student Mari Chinn. Overhearing a hallway conversation about NSF awards, Chinn headed for the computer lab and checked the NSF Web site. "Erin, get over here," Chinn said. Wilkerson hustled over from across the lab to see what Mari had found. Like Danao, Wilkerson was astounded to see her own name among the list of fellowship recipients.

"I don't know how many students apply, but I had people tell me I was crazy for even thinking about it," Wilkerson says. An interesting connection: Chinn won a 1999 NSF fellowship and had encouraged Wilkerson to apply.

In a field of 256 winning graduate engineering students, Danao and Wilkerson were the sole agricultural engineering students in the nation awarded this prestigious academic honor. The department was thrilled to hear the news.

"The odds of two students from a department of our size being recognized in this way are extremely small," says Larry Turner, department chairman. "To use a sports analogy, I'd liken the odds to those of UK and Louisville playing for the national championship in the Final Four. Actually, I'd say the department's odds are even less."

Ecstatic over the three-year $16,000 annual stipend, additional research funds and international travel money, both Danao and Wilkerson acknowledge that intensive research experience was a key in winning the fellowship. "Agricultural engineering departments are typically small, so they allow undergraduates to participate in research. I think that was a huge advantage for me when I applied for the NSF fellowship," Wilkerson says. "I had already worked on several research projects. I guess that was pretty impressive."

Danao entered the University of Florida as a chemical engineering major, but after touring the school's agricultural engineering department during her first semester, she decided to change majors. The agricultural curriculum integrated biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics—all her favorite subjects. In the College of Agriculture, she became a student leader, organizing the department's first career fair, tutoring in chemistry and math, and serving as a student mentor.

Photo of Larry Turner and Erin WilkersonWith Agricultural Engineering chairman Larry Turner, Erin Wilkerson discusses how variables such as humidity, air temperature and plant temperature affect the rooting stage of poinsettias.

For Wilkerson, there was no question about an agriculture career. It was simply a natural extension of her interests. Raised on a small beef and tobacco farm in Maynardville, Tennessee, she had farming in her blood. Wilkerson began 4-H in fourth grade and continued through her high school years, winning a state 4-H agricultural economics award and travel to a national conference. She credits the program with providing skills and experiences that contributed to her award.

"It helped with leadership and public speaking, and gave me exposure to the agricultural campus at the University of Tennessee. The atmosphere of UT's College of Agriculture was different from the rest of campus. I see it here at UK, too. The faculty and the people are down-to-earth," she says.

Throughout their early academic careers, both women have participated in a variety of research projects and leadership activities. Wilkerson served as a second vice president of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers National Pre-Professionals Council, where she organized undergraduate poster sessions for the annual meeting. Danao, coincidentally, now holds the same post and recently ran this year's undergraduate poster session. As undergraduates, both served as engineering ambassadors, helping to prepare high school students for college and promoting the agricultural engineering field.

It was during her tenure as an ambassador that Wilkerson met Richard Gates, UK professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering, at the ASAE Southeastern Regional Rally at Clemson University. Gates saw in Wilkerson potential for a top-notch graduate student.

"She seemed committed to furthering agriculture and trying to get more people involved," he says. "I kept pestering her UT advisors to convince her that Kentucky wasn't that far north."

A keen interest in greenhouse systems and controlled environments persuaded her to enroll at UK for her master's work. Now, she works in Gates's section of the UK greenhouses, monitoring green poinsettia plantlets as they begin to form roots. Utilizing a unique misting system invented by one of Gates's Ph.D. students which is integrated with specifically designed software, Wilkerson plans to devise a prediction model that relates variables such as humidity, air temperature and plant temperature to rooting stage.

The project, Gates says, has implications for commercial application. "As a billion-dollar wholesale crop, poinsettias are an excellent alternative for tobacco producers. By changing the environment to improve growth efficiency, our measuring technique uses about 10 times less water than in conventional static systems." That translates to vast savings for growers, especially because the technique could apply to any other plant species that is started from cuttings.

NSF research experience was part of Danao's repertoire when she applied for the graduate fellowship. Last summer, she attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute's NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates Program in Blacksburg, Virginia, participating in food and bioprocess engineering projects. The research program sparked her interest in bioprocess engineering.

During a trip to the American Society of Agricultural Engineers Annual International Meeting in Toronto, Danao met UK biosystems and agricultural engineering Graduate Studies Director Fred Payne, who hinted at similar projects under way on the UK campus. Serendipity played a role in her choice of graduate school, too.

"Kentucky kept cropping up in conversation," Danao says. "If I had stayed at UF, I would have worked with Dr. Ray Bucklin, a UK graduate. If I had gone to Texas A&M, I would have worked with Dr. Scott Osborn, also a graduate of UK. When I told them I'd decided on UK, they both said, "You made a good choice—if you can't come here, then that's the place I'd tell you to go.'" Danao is planning to do fiber optics sensor research with Payne.

Sue Nokes, a UK assistant professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering, says that the NSF award will provide additional opportunities for the women. "This award will open doors for them if they decide to work in academia, certainly when they select a school for their doctorates if they decide to pursue them. I think the most important result will be that it will separate them from other applicants for a tenure-track position after their Ph.D.s."

The NSF specifically targets women for these awards with the goal of training more female faculty in engineering, Nokes says. She also notes that programs on the UK campus have made a difference in enrollment by providing support, such as an active Society of Women Engineers chapter and Women in Engineering programs. UK's overall enrollment of women graduate engineering students hovers around 18 percent, according to Douglass Kalika, senior associate dean of the Graduate School. Boasting a 33 percent rate, biosystems and agricultural engineering is well above the national average.

"We may be admittedly rather biased, but our faculty have known for a long time that we have one of the outstanding programs in the country. The caliber of students we attract is a direct reflection on the caliber of faculty we have in the department," says Turner.

"Students who have been named NSF Fellows could attend any university they want to. That they choose to attend UK and become part of our graduate program speaks volumes about the program we are building here, and about our students and faculty."

Kim Cumbie