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UF/IFAS plant pathologist helps Jacksonville student succeed in science competition

Jacksonville high school senior Andrew Joseph is what you’d call a self-starter.

As a tenth-grader, he read an article about scientists developing disease-resistant transgenic wheat. Andrew was intrigued, but he also asked the question, “what about rice?” As the world’s most-consumed cereal crop, rice is important to more people than wheat, he reasoned.

So he began investigating traits that might let rice grow in a broader range of environmental conditions. Andrew knew from a previous research project that E. coli bacteria can survive just about anywhere, and learned that one reason for this adaptability is a compound called trehalose. A carbohydrate produced by E. coli and many other organisms, trehalose is believed to help cells withstand prolonged drought.

Andrew settled on a goal—adding two E. coli genes to the rice plant Oryza sativa, causing it to produce trehalose. Then he set about finding a mentor who could provide advice and access to sophisticated lab equipment that wasn’t available at his school, Episcopal School of Jacksonville.

An online search uncovered several university faculty members who worked with rice and had experience in genetic engineering. Only one was located in the Southeast. That was Wen-Yuan Song, a plant pathology associate professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“I e-mailed him, and asked him to mentor me,” Andrew said. “He replied, to my amazement. He said to come on down (to Gainesville) and tell him about my project.”

Though Song’s research doesn’t deal with drought tolerance, he was sufficiently impressed by Andrew’s command of the subject that he agreed to let Andrew use his laboratory, with assistance from senior biological scientist Terry Davoli and post-doctoral associates Xiaoen Huang and Qiang Chen.

“This project is pretty challenging for a high school student,” Song said. “But Andrew never gives up.”

Two years later, Andrew has succeeded in putting those E. coli genes into rice, though he’s still trying to raise the plants so that he can test their drought resistance.

Along the way, Andrew entered the Intel Science Talent Search, a prestigious national competition for high school seniors. He was one of 300 semifinalists chosen from an initial pool of more than 1,800 applicants.

In January, the finalists were chosen. Unfortunately, Andrew was not among them. He remains philosophical, though.

“With true research, you have to celebrate the little things, you have to celebrate the things that succeeded,” he said.

Ultimately, Andrew hopes to follow in his mother’s footsteps and become a physician, perhaps working in biomedical engineering. His mother, Madeline Joseph, is chief of the division of pediatric emergency medicine at UF’s College of Medicine in Jacksonville.

And his research efforts may have already inspired other students – in the Song household.

“Sometimes, I share things with my kids about Andrew’s work,” Song said. “I try to encourage them that they should work harder. They got really excited about Andrew’s award.”

Writer: Tom Nordlie, 352-273-3567, tnordlie@ufl.edu

Source: Wen-Yuan Song, 352-273-4652, wsong@ufl.edu