Staying the Course

by Mechell McCrary

Posted on Jun 19, 2021

Fort Valley State University plant science students Aikaari Ryce, Tori McGuire and Kayla Staten excited about the next chapters in their lives. They are shown with Dr. Ralph Noble, dean of the College of Agriculture, Family Sciences and Technology, and plant science professor Dr. Sarwan Dhir.

By Latasha Ford

As students studying plant science at Fort Valley State University, Tori McGuire and research partners Aikaari Ryce and Kayla Staten faced several challenges at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020 during their senior year. However, they persevered and remained focused on their vision.

Agricultural scientist Dr. George Washington Carver said it best, "Where there is no vision, there is no hope." Inspired by this prominent inventor, the three aspiring plant scientists are now one step closer to fulfilling their career vision.

McGuire and Staten graduated on May 15 to receive their degrees in plant science-biotechnology, while Ryce looks forward to earning his degree in plant science-horticulture in December.

To reach this milestone in their educational journey came with many obstacles. McGuire vividly recalls returning from the Washington, D.C., Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in February 2020. She then went from enjoying spring break that following month to suddenly receiving an email from the university directing students not to return to campus.

The 23-year-old Miami, Florida, native said that is when everything changed. She and her peers had to adjust to asynchronous and blended synchronous learning. Additionally, her 2020 summer internship with the Boyce Thompson Institute in New York moved all its activities to a virtual format.

The pandemic also halted Staten's opportunity to earn more shadowing hours to go toward applying for a physician assistant program. Ryce admitted it was a big change and challenge to adjust, but it made them more versatile.

"We got through it. We had clear guidelines on where we should be moving," Staten said. "It was discouraging coming back and not being able to do certain things, but Dr. (Sarwan) Dhir (plant science professor) has been trying to keep us engaged and motivated."

In addition to the pandemic affecting in-person classes, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Scholarships in STEM (S-STEM) scholars also had to redo their research project. They are testing the effects of different carbon sources on somatic embryogenesis of alfalfa, a perennial flowering plant that is grown as feed for livestock.

McGuire said alfalfa is a great source of protein and provides nutrients. Since it can only be grown in colder climates, they are trying to find a maintainable long-term system, such as in vitro cultivation, to grow these plants. "We are creating a system that will help feed the world," she emphasized.

Ryce said two of their carbon sources, glucose and sucrose at 2 percent and 3 percent, are showing good results.

"If the agricultural industry stops, the world stops," Staten said. "We must continue growing plants to feed animals and then transfer that meat from the grocery store to families. It is a chain reaction." The 24-year-old from Warner Robins, Georgia, added that through this process, they learned a lot about teamwork, communication and persevering through an unforeseen obstacle.

"If I can get through four semesters of COVID-19 in college, then I can get through anything," Staten said. "We are all walking out on the other side with more skills than we had before."

The three young scientists are excited about the next chapter in their lives. McGuire will attend Tuskegee University in fall 2021 and pursue a master's degree in plant and soil science. Staten plans to enroll in a physician assistant program. Ryce accepted a virtual summer internship at Michigan State University, where his research will focus on computational biology.

As for their career goals, McGuire desires to be a plant breeder. Initially interested in pharmacy, she changed her major to plant science when she transferred from Florida A&M University to FVSU, which is her parents' alma mater, in 2019. She discovered that she enjoyed working in agriculture.

"Being a scientist in agriculture is one of my goals, and I want to travel the world as part of my job," McGuire said.

Staten always aspired to work in the medical field and help people. Also interested in helping others, Ryce's goal is to cultivate medicinal plants to bring more awareness about their healing properties and become a philanthropist. "I want to wake up and do something I love every day," he said.

The 23-year-old from Moultrie, Georgia, changed his major from electronic engineering to plant science after his mother sent him an article about a young girl who took cannabis to help heal her cancer. After his grandmothers died from cancer, this further sparked Ryce's interest in learning more about medicinal plants for holistic benefits. "It is a big field and can change lives," he said.

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