AMES, Iowa -- An effort to involve American Indian students and researchers in plant genome research at Iowa State University has been honored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

The Outreach to American Indians in Plant Germplasm and Genomics Program received the USDA-ARS Midwest Area Research Support Awards for Excellence Equal Opportunity Award in February.

Candice Gardner, supervisory plant biologist, and Carolyn Lawrence, research geneticist, administer the program. It seeks to build the body of knowledge about germplasm collections from the Southwest and repatriate American Indians' plant collections while giving young American Indians science experience.  

"The involvement of Native American students and researchers in plant genome research is minimal," Lawrence said. "To increase their representation in the research community, we began a summer program to mentor Native American undergraduates in plant genomics research."

The annual program has brought four to six young adult American Indians to Iowa State each summer since 2005. They experience life on a college campus, gain hands on science experience and are introduced to plant genetics.

While on campus students work with USDA-ARS North Central Regional Plant Introduction scientists to grow and propagate plants and collect and preserve plant material. The primary focus of the program is maize genetics, but coordinators try to match research projects to participants' interest such as Echinacea species, other plants of importance to native tribes and the role of insect pollinators.  

"Each project has a bioinformatics component to it and they all get grounded in maize, plant genetic resource conservation and the use of the maize genome database, or MaizeGDB," Gardner said.  

Coordinators involve tribal elders who are invited to serve on an advisory board and travel to Ames to work with the students.

"When the elders visit they are very happy to know about the maize genetics resources programs, and that the corn is treated with respect," Gardner said.
 
Elders' hopes for the students are conveyed alongside the outcomes anticipated by research mentors. Organizers also host presentations by successful American Indian scientists.   

The USDA-ARS award was presented to a team of ARS personnel who implement the program in collaboration with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' George Washington Carver Summer Research Internship Program with support from the National Science Foundation and ISU staff members of the North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station and MaizeGDB project.

The program is in its final year of its initial five-year grant. Program coordinators plan to seek continued funding though NSF outreach component grants.    

SOURCE: Iowa State University.