Each summer the Noble Foundation hosts more than a dozen highly skilled students from across the United States as part of its two exclusive educational programs - the Summer Research Scholars and the Lloyd Noble Scholars in Agriculture. As the summer drew to a close, four of these young academics reflected on their months at the Noble Foundation, sharing memories and explaining how their time at the organization will shape their futures.
On a sticky Wednesday afternoon in early August, a handful of Lloyd Noble Scholars in Agriculture stood in the driveway of a farmer who was receiving counsel from the organization's professional agricultural consultants. The scholars listened intently and scribbled notes as the producer detailed his operation and current challenges.
Consultation Program Manager Hugh Aljoe stood to the side keeping an eye on both his client and his young pupils. The morning before the meeting, Aljoe told the scholars to treat this farm visit as though they were going to provide the actual consultation - because, in the end, they were going to help shape the team's recommendations.
Scholar Sarah Coffey was among the group listening that morning. She carefully mulled over questions in her mind before summoning the courage to ask about the farmer's herbicide usage. Later in her office, she would pore over her notes, compiling her best ideas.
The practical application of Coffey's education - she is studying agronomy at Texas A&M University - is but one moment in a summer filled with hands-on training as part of the Scholars in Agriculture Program. For Coffey, the entire summer was a unique opportunity.
"I had an amazing time observing and listening to the consultants and then participating in the process," Coffey said. "This experience brought the classroom to life and opened my eyes to the many opportunities available in agriculture."
Growing up in Tennessee, Coffey became interested in agriculture through 4H, FFA and family camping trips. At age 16, her family moved to New Braunfels, Texas, where she served as the local FFA treasurer. She followed in the footsteps of her older brother and sister in attending Texas A&M, where she learned about the Noble Foundation through her college advisor.
Coffey completed the Noble Foundation's competitive application process and earned a coveted spot as a scholar. She was immediately surprised at the scope of the Foundation. "It was amazing just how many lives this organization has impacted through so many different channels," she said.
Coffey's primary project was a trial comparing different herbicides' effectiveness in controlling sandbur in bermudagrass and the amount of injury the chemicals inflicted on the crop. She worked closely with her supervisor Eddie Funderburg, soils and crop consultant. "Sarah - like all our scholars - may be a student, but is treated like a peer," Funderburg said. "Each scholar takes away a tremendous amount of real-world knowledge because they actually run a project. This summer experience is the application of their education. It benefits their lives and futures, and it benefits agriculture in the Southern Great Plains."
A most interesting man
Bob Peterson stood in the same driveway as Coffey that afternoon, but his path to the Noble Foundation was much different. His passion for agriculture came well after he had gained some life experience. In fact, before finding the Noble Foundation, Peterson worked as a train conductor, race car driver and as a drummer in a rock band. His life experiences led his fellow scholars to label him "the most interesting man in the world."
In 2000, Peterson had an epiphany. As a counselor at the Missouri Quail Academy, he heard about the sharp decline of the bobwhite quail, a bird whose population has dwindled by 82 percent in the last 40 years. He learned that he could manipulate the environment to help the species survive, read everything he could about quail and then developed a passion for wildlife management. Peterson worked for Quail Unlimited as a regional director before returning to school in 2009 at Missouri Southern State University.
In January 2010, Peterson contacted the Noble Foundation about scholarships. Wildlife and Fisheries Consultant Steven Smith directed Peterson to the Lloyd Noble Scholars in Agriculture Program, for which Peterson applied and was accepted.
"My love for learning came later in life," he said. "It speaks volumes about the Noble Foundation that they would give nontraditional students like me such a great opportunity."
Working under Wildlife Research Specialist Ken Gee, Peterson took part in several projects including gathering deer management data, building goose nesting boxes and participating in consultation visits.
"It was apparent from the moment I arrived that the Noble Foundation wanted me to succeed," he said. "The training, mentoring and contacts I made put me on a pathway to success I never imagined."
Micro project, major experience
Jennifer Meoni spent several days during the summer perched on a stool in Assistant Professor Carolyn Young's laboratory, watching through a microscope with excitement as root hairs curled. A rhizobial strain she introduced early in the summer was promoting growth effects in her legume, meaning she was literally watching success grow in front of her eyes.
"Life on the microorganism level fascinates me," she said. "I love studying plants. They're the basis for everything, and this summer brought together my love for plants and microorganisms. It was the best of both worlds."
Meoni, one of six Noble Summer Research Scholars, came to the Noble Foundation from North Carolina State where she studies plant biology. Like all Summer Research Scholars, Meoni was assigned a meaningful science project that supported the research of her host laboratory. "I've learned so much from my mentor, Dr. Ruchi Singh, about the careful consistency that is required to produce good science," Meoni said. "The people here welcomed me into their lives on day one, and I was a part of something greater than myself."
Meoni's research findings will be included and acknowledged on one of Singh's research posters. "Our summer scholars are not interns who do grunt work. They are young professionals," Singh said. "They conduct real science, and they receive the proper credit."
One summer. Lasting impact.
No two days were the same for Jared Pembrook during his summer at the Noble Foundation.
Pembrook, a junior at OSU majoring in biochemistry, spent many hours in the Noble Foundation's research greenhouse carefully trimming the leaves of Brachypodium distachyon, a temperate wild grass species that is closely related to important forage and turf grasses.
In addition to his work in the greenhouse, he often amplified DNA from the brachypodium and scored his findings on a computer program that maps genes. Mapping the genes in brachypodium will help scientists understand complex traits such as drought tolerance. "My mentor, Dr. Azhaguvel Perumal, showed me several lab techniques," Pembrook said. "That knowledge alone will give me a huge advantage when I return to school and conduct my own research."
He also spent time harvesting tall fescue at the Noble Foundation's Red River Farm. The data he collected from the field may later be used to study drought resistance for tall fescue and other grasses.
"I love how no two days are the same," Pembrook said. "The days go by so fast, and I am always learning something new."
Pembrook plans to become a medical doctor and believes his time at the Noble Foundation will pay future dividends. "My relationships with everyone in my laboratory, especially my mentor, were amazing," he said. "It's the people that make the Noble Foundation special. I know that this summer will have a lasting impact on my life."