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21-Year-Old Turkey Scholar’s Fierce Devotion to Food Protection

Sena Demirden, 21, has her career ambitions on target. A visiting scholar from Tokat Gaziosmanpasa University in Turkey, Demirden’s career aspiration is to work as a research scientist in biological control, with expertise in the application of natural enemies and bacteria used against invasive plants and plant pathogens that can cause disease in plants.

Summer Scholar at UF/IFAS Indian River Research and Education Center 

Demirden is a summer visiting scholar at the University of Florida’s Institute of Agricultural Science’s (UF/IFAS) Indian River Research and Education Center, or IRREC, in Fort Pierce. Pasco Avery, a biological scientist III and leader at the IRREC’s Entomopathogenic Fungi Research Laboratory, is supervising her studies and fieldwork. Entomopathogenic fungi kill insects that may carry disease-causing pathogens to crops, but the fungi do not harm the crops, beneficial insects, humans or animals.

Research to sustain Florida’s legendary citrus industry 

Demirden’s work at IRREC is to gather and analyze data collected from a field experiment that took place in a citrus grove where citrus greening, or huanglongbing (HLB), was present. HLB Citrus greening has reduced the state’s signature crop to less than half of what it once was in its heyday when citrus contributed $7 billion to the state’s economy. Many UF/IFAS research scientists work to find a cure for the disease and to restore the once-thriving industry.

Entomopathogenic fungus and bacteria  

Avery uses an entomopathogenic fungus, Isaria fumosorosea, to manage the Asian citrus psyllid, the insect that carries a bacterial pathogen associated with HLB that kills the citrus trees. Demirden works with Avery’s laboratory technician, Emily Duren, and helps to prepare leaf samples collected from a grove experiment. Together Demirden and Duren determine the persistence of fungal spores present on leaves collected over time. The new data set is compared to what was collected a year ago.

Demirden targeted Avery’s laboratory for a prospective internship opportunity because she wants to add the skills that he can teach her to the knowledge she previously gained at Tokat Gaziosmanpasa University, where she uses entomopathogenic bacteria to fight insects.

“I searched journal articles for scientists who were working with biological control so I could study these techniques in other countries,” said Demirden. She found Avery’s work published in scientific journals, including Scientific Reports, the Journal of Economic Entomology and Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology.

Plant Pathology

A second focus for Demerdin’s internship is work in the Plant Pathology Research Laboratory at IRREC, under the direction of Liliana Cano, an innovative research scientist who works with plant disease immunity. Cano said Demerdin’s work is to examine potential microorganisms associated with Florida crops.

“Sena is examining symptomatic plant tissues to isolate potential bacterial and fungal pathogens in pure cultures,” said Cano. “The cultures will then be used for morphological and DNA sequencing to identify pathogens that cause plant disease.”

Cano said recent findings from her laboratory on the identity of plant pathogens associated with Florida crops are shared with growers and industry.

At home in Turkey, Demirden is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Microbial Biotechnology with a focus on microbial pesticides used in biological control. Her mentor, Associate Professor of Microbial Biotechnology, Canan Usta, said Demirden’s interests are with laboratory work in bacterial transfers, bacterial colony selections for isolations, and preparations of electrophoretic solutions, or the movement of electrified particles to transfer microbes or pathogens.

“Bacteria can be moved from a laboratory environment to diseased plants that will destroy bad bacteria and save crops,” said Demirden.

Another statement Usta made about Demirden suggests that Demirden understands the value of plant protection using natural entomopathogenic bacteria and fungi to resolve worldwide hunger without transferring their toxin genes to the crop plants.

“Sena is a third-year student in the Molecular Biology and Genetic Department, and she has a more sophisticated view of life compared to others with respect to a healthier food supply for both developed and undeveloped countries,” said Usta.

“I believe biological control will become more important for healthier food production worldwide,” said Demirden. “Worldwide food production will meet food needs as hunger decreases.”

Demirden’s aims to resolve world hunger are altruistic and sustainability minded. According to her relatives, Demirden carries on with a fierce devotion to protecting her people and their heritage. Samsun is Demirden’s home on Turkey’s northern coast. As a youth, her grandparents and parents took her for visits to the local Amazon Museum where they informed her about their ancient, storied cultural heritage as a descendant of the brave Amazonian women, a matriarchal society of expert archers, who thrived in ancient Greece. The classic writer Homer wrote about the Amazonians in his epic poem, Iliad. Art historians believe the images of women warrior archers who appear in glossy black with gold art on iconic terracotta Greek pottery are Amazonian women. The pottery is recognizable and on exhibit in the world’s most important museums. The ancient Amazonian women are believed to have lived in and around Samsun, in modern-day Turkey, said Demirden.

Demirden’s next targets are to return to Turkey, complete her bachelor’s degree, and then seek a master’s in biological control, using both entomopathogenic bacteria and fungi. Her aims are noble, like the Amazonian women who protected each other in their quest for an advanced civilization.

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