MSU student receives one of first USDA-NIFA fellowships

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MSU Graduate, Elizabeth SavoryElizabeth Savory, a Michigan State University graduate student, received one of the first fellowships awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture. She is a plant pathology doctoral candidate in MSU AgBioResearch scientist Brad Day’s lab. The fellowship is for $75,000 for her research on cucumber downy mildew.

The fellowships were awarded to 54 pre- and postdoctoral students at 32 universities to help develop the next generation of agricultural, forestry and food scientists. Through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative — NIFA’s competitive grants program — the organization distributed $6 million in its first year of fellowships.

“It is very, very exciting,” Savory said. “I got the phone call while I was in the lab, and everyone thought I was hyperventilating.”

“This is an amazing achievement,” said Day, assistant professor in the MSU Department of Plant Pathology. “For her to be on the founding list of winners for this program is a fantastic award not only for Elizabeth but for Michigan State as well. She came in and began working on a very difficult project where there wasn’t a lot of information and really built this from the ground up. Now she’s ready to take it to the next step, so this award really represents her time here at MSU.”

Savory studies Pseudoperonospora cubensis, the pathogen that causes cucurbit downy mildew, which reemerged in Michigan in 2005 and devastated Michigan’s cucumber fields. Michigan is the largest producer of cucumbers for processing in the United States.

In Day’s lab, Savory studies the genetic makeup of the pathogen and the cucumber using next generation RNA sequencing technology. She finds every gene expressed in the makeup of the pathogen and the plant and compares them during periods of infection to try to identify which of the pathogen’s genes might cause infection or which of the plant’s genes are particularly susceptible. She aims to better understand the connection between downy mildew and cucumbers and to develop a useful model for understanding plant pathogen interactions in general.

The next phase of Savory’s plan is to create an outreach and education program for Michigan growers. She works with a cucumber commodity group called Pickle Packers International, which also funds some of her research.

“My overall goal is to take what we’ve developed in the lab and translate it into something we can use to actually help farmers in the field,” Savory said. “There is somewhat of a disconnect between what we do and what our growers think we do or think we should be doing, so we are planning some informational sessions to show growers and members of the Pickle Packers what goes on in the lab and explain why it matters.”

Savory also plans to use a portion of the NIFA funding to travel to Japan next summer. She will present her research there at the International Congress on Molecular Plant Microbe Interactions.

NIFA was established through the 2008 Food, Conservation and Energy Act to help fund research on critical food and agriculture issues.

Photo: MSU Graduate, Elizabeth Savory

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