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Employment at the North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station (NCRPIS)

Ames, Iowa

The North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station manages and provides plant genetic resources and associated information for research and educational objectives. As a result of working at the station, student employees will improve their professional skills related to: communications, ethics, leadership, problem solving, technical agronomy, international awareness, and appreciation of diversity.

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Projects & Employment Activity Summary


Each curation team maintains a collection of plant species preserved primarily as seeds. Each collection is composed of individual accessions which are groups of related plant material of a single species collected one time from a specific location. Each plant accession is an attempt to capture the genetic diversity present within a given population. To keep seeds in gene banks viable and available for distribution to researchers throughout the world they must be regrown and increased periodically. This is accomplished by planting a portion of the stored seed and saving the seed from the parent plants. The new seeds replace the aging ones. This process of regeneration must be done for each crop collection.

Controlled pollination is critical to produce seeds consistent with the genetic characteristics of the original population. Although some germplasm such as corn and cultivated sunflowers can be increased with hand pollinations, much of the germplasm held at NCRPIS is grown using insect pollination. Control pollinations are accomplished using a cage system consisting of a frame and screening to contain the desired insect pollinator and prevent cross-pollination with other accessions of the same plant species.

While each crop collection has its own unique maintenance, regeneration, and management needs, you can expect to be involved in many of the following activities:


Amaranth Curation Project: David Brenner, Curator; Sam Flomo, Research Assistant.

Project Summary: The Amaranth Project includes a broad spectrum of minor (grown on small acreage) new crops in its collection. While Amaranth accessions comprise the largest single component of the collection, it also includes quinoa, millets, parsley, dill, fennel, and several clover-like species including prairie native Dalea. Each year about 300 accessions are grown for seed increase. Most seed increases are grown during the fall and spring in greenhouses located on the Iowa State University (ISU) campus. However, the project also has substantial summer field efforts focused on accession characterization, data collection in addition to seed increase. A large greenhouse planting typically occurs in August just before classes resume at ISU.

Employment Activities: Working closely with permanent staff, as well as independently, employees participate in a seasonal rotation of field and greenhouse activities. Field tours and presentations during the summer allow for additional opportunities to learn about plant diversity and plant biology. Students may also conduct independent projects which generate characterization data about our crops for online distribution to researchers.


Horticulture Curation Project: Jeff Carstens, Curator; Andrew Sherwood, Research Technician.

Project Summary: The Horticulture Project’s collection includes 200 genera of woody and herbaceous plants originating from throughout the world. Our seed vault contains the world’s most complete collections of Agastache, Aronia, Betula, Echinacea, Fraxinus, Gymnocladus, Hypericum, Monarda, and Spiraea. You’ll likely encounter Jeff talking about the importance of “root architecture” in woody plant production and how the origin of germplasm impacts a plant’s performance in the landscape. Andrew is the team’s expert in genetics and enjoys discussing publications on the plant genetic diversity and breeding of Solidago.

Employment Activities: Employees are engaged in a wide variety of experiences involving the care of plants in the field and greenhouse, harvesting and processing seeds, performing germination tests, imaging of plants and seeds, field trips to natural areas in Iowa, and lively science-based discussions. Many students have completed special interest projects ranging from breaking seed dormancies, assessments of sugar content in Aronia berries, to seed longevity studies in Salix.


Oilseed Curation Project:  Laura Marek, Curator; Grace Welke, Research Scientist III; Jeff Schwartz, Research Technician.

Project Summary: The Oilseed Curation Project manages and maintains accessions of wild and cultivated sunflower, oilseed Brassica (which include canola and rapeseed and new crops like Thlaspi and Camelina), wild and cultivated flax, Cuphea, Euphorbia and a group of miscellaneous asters including Centrapalus, an oilseed from Africa. The wild sunflower collection is the most complete collection in the world. We grow accessions primarily during the summer in Ames, but some are grown in greenhouses during the winter at the NCRPIS station. Periodically we cooperate with scientists at ISU and other locations in evaluating oilseed species. We also make collection-specific evaluations to facilitate future regeneration efforts.

Employment Activities: Employees are involved in a wide range of activities which change by the season. Seeds are either direct seeded in the field or started in germination boxes and transplanted once or twice in the greenhouse before transplanting into the field. Cultivated sunflowers are hand pollinated by bagging the flower heads before they produce viable pollen and then moving the pollen between plants. Throughout the season observation data is recorded to document stand count, plant height, first flowering date, and harvest date. Data is electronically recorded. After the mature flower heads are harvested and dried, the heads are threshed, and the resulting seed is cleaned and inventoried.


Maize Curation Project:  Mark Millard, Curator; Vivian Bernau, Curator; Sami Armintrout, Research Technician.

Project Summary: The Maize Curation Project maintains accessions of tropical and temperate cultivated maize (corn), as well as accessions of maize wild relatives. Seed from the collection is distributed throughout the world, but many samples are distributed to local scientists and plant breeders who are working in corn research and crop improvement. Mark Millard’s encyclopedic knowledge of maize races from all over the world is likely to pique your interest in both history and genetic diversity. Sami Armintrout is the team’s expert in greenhouse management and pest control.

Employment Activities: Employees participate in a wide variety of activities including the care of plants in the field and greenhouse, hand-pollinations, hand harvesting, and seed processing. They also assist project staff in the collection of field data during the growing season (plant stand, plant height, ear height, flowering date, harvest date) and lab data to document ear and kernel information collected during seed processing. Employees may also participate in image capture operations to document seed and ear characteristics for the GRIN-Global database. Student employees have completed special interest projects in germinating and georeferencing collections of wild maize species and have assisted in the development of image processing protocols.


Vegetable Curation Project:  Kathy Reitsma, Curator; Cole Hopkins, Research Specialist; Brandyn Chapman, Research Specialist.

Project Summary: The Vegetable Project maintains accessions from eight genera including Cichorium (chicory, endive), Cucumis (cucumber, honeydew, cantaloupe), Cucurbita pepo (pumpkin, squash), Daucus (carrot), Ocimum (basil), and Pastinaca (parsnip). The germplasm represents wild crop relatives and domesticated germplasm collected around the world representing a crop’s center of origin and regions of domestication. Some original seed samples were collected in the 1940s and 1950s and are still viable today. The team mission is to conserve the genetic diversity of these collections to provide seeds/plants to researchers worldwide for breeding new varieties with improved nutrition, disease resistance, abiotic stress tolerance, or medicinal value.

Employment Activities: Employees will gain experience in a variety of seasonal tasks as part of the regeneration (seed increase) process including sowing seeds in greenhouse pots, constructing/deconstructing field cages, transplanting seedlings to field cages, weeding plots, and hand harvesting/processing fruits or seeds. Most pollinations are accomplished through insect pollinators introduced into the field cages, but occasional hand pollination may be required for the cucurbit crops. Because these are small plots/plant populations, fruit and seed harvesting and extraction are done by hand to prevent cross- contamination from one accession to the next. Employees will participate in plant care in the greenhouse and field (watering, fertilizing, thinning, weeding,); assist in monitoring plants for pollinator needs, scouting for disease and insect pests, performing seed cleaning; and collecting and entering characterization data.


Germplasm Enhancement of Maize (GEM) Project:  Adam Vanous, GEM Coordinator; James McNellie, Geneticist; Nuo (Mack) Shen, IT Specialist; Skye Bradley, Research Technician.

Project Summary: The GEM Project is a plant breeding program focused on the development of genetically diverse maize germplasm for public distribution and utilization. The Project is a collaborative effort between USDA-ARS, and both public and private research scientists. The utilization of exotic, public, and proprietary maize germplasm contributes to an increased diversity of maize grown by producers as well as improved performance. Research information is generated and shared with the scientific community and includes: (i) characterization of germplasm for agronomic performance and traits, (ii) breeding methodology for enhancement of exotic germplasm, and (iii) germplasm with unique traits for further research applications.

Employment Activities: Employees will participate in a variety of field and seed lab activities associated with a field crop breeding program. Seed lab activities include shelling, seed cleaning, seed counting, and preparation of materials for field nursery and yield trial plantings using state-of-the art equipment. Field operations during the growing season include planting of nursery and yield trial experiments, plot maintenance and irrigation, field data collection, hand pollination, ear detasseling, and hand harvesting of nursery pollinations and isolated crossing rows. Most field research activities are located at the NCRPIS fields adjacent to the main building.


Seed Viability & Germination Testing:  Lisa Pfiffner, AOSA Registered Seed Analyst.

Project Summary: The Germination Department is responsible for testing and monitoring the viability of the NCRPIS seed collections. Seed accessions are tested prior to storage if they are newly collected or grown at our field station. After initial testing, each accession is put on a regular testing schedule to monitor seed viability and assist the curatorial staff in the management of each collection Germination test data is entered into the GRIN-Global database and is available for the entire National Plant Germplasm System (NGPS) to see as well as the researchers and educators who may be ordering the seed. Seed testing is conducted in accordance with rules and procedures established by the Association of Official Seed Analyst (AOSA) when available.

Employment Activities: Duties of the Germination Department are to set up and score germination tests, enter test results into the GRIN Global database, fill seed orders, use SharePoint calendar, and wash germination boxes. Working with seed from multiple curatorial collections provides a great opportunity to learn about the wide range of plants we grow and maintain here in our gene bank.


Seed Storage & Distribution:  Lisa Burke, Agronomist; Stacey Estrada, Program Assistant; Ashley Sonner, Lab Technician.

Project Summary: The Seed Preservation and Distribution Department is responsible for the physical seed inventory of the accessions maintained at the station and for the distribution of seed samples. The staff manages sample orders and distributes packets of seed to researchers nationally and internationally. Information about the collection is held in a relational database called GRIN Global.

Employment Activities: Daily activities include filling seed orders, storing newly regenerated seed samples, cleaning and imaging newly received original samples, verifying inventory quantities of distribution samples and inventory lots, and prepacking distribution seed lots, and entering information into GRIN Global.

Students pursuing degrees related to seed science and technology gain experience in seed identification and preservation; learn about the origins of various crops and their wild and weedy relatives; become familiar with international shipping requirements and relational database operations.


Entomology/Control Pollination Project: Steve Hanlin, Entomologist; Jeanette Dryer, Research Technician.

Project Summary: The Entomology/Control Pollination Project assists the curatorial projects by providing insect pollinators to facilitate optimal pollination and subsequent seed production. The group also assists in identifying insect specimens found on plants and provides management recommendations for pests. Controlled pollinations are done using four species of bees (honeybees, bumble bees, alfalfa leafcutting bees, and mason bees) and two species of flies (blue bottle flies and house flies) in both greenhouse and field cages. Most of the summer pollination work is associated with the honeybees and the production of “nucleus hives” which include movement of bees and frames and the production of queens. Other activities for the project are the emergence of adult insects from purchased cocoons and pupae and their placement into cages for pollination. Once the pollinators are in the cages, they require weekly care for continual health (weekly feedings for honeybees or supplementing of leafcutting bees or flies) to promote successful pollinations.

Employment Activities: Employees will receive hands-on experience with beekeeping skills such as identifying brood production, queen location, disease control and everyday work associated with honeybees. In addition, they will learn the skill of queen rearing and splitting of bee colonies and nucleus hive production. Employees will also learn the life cycle and development of the other pollinators used and how to best promote their development in the emergence and collection of adults. Employees have an opportunity to conduct small trials while fulfilling their weekly duties such comparison of screen bottom boards and solid bottoms for mite control, the use of powdered sugar as a sampling technique, or the use of candy boards to extend survival of over-wintered bee colonies. While safety is a top priority for all station projects, there are inherent hazards in working with the Pollination Project as individuals are working daily with groups of stinging insects under hot, humid conditions throughout the summer months.


Plant Pathology & Seed Health: Colleen Warfield, Plant Pathologist; Margaret Moodispaw, Research Technician.

Project Summary: The issuance of phytosanitary certificates, which are necessary for the international distribution of seed, often require seed to be free of seedborne plant pathogens or to be harvested from plants inspected during active growth. The Plant Pathology Team performs seed health tests to ensure the seed we are shipping is free of prohibited plant pathogens. Antibody-based, immunodiagnostic assays (ELISA) are the primary method of detection used, but culture plating, blotter tests, molecular-based assays (PCR) and microscopic examination are also used to detect various fungal, bacterial, viral or nematode plant pathogens. During the summer months, the Plant Pathology Team conducts field inspections of seed-increase plots looking for symptoms of plant diseases of phytosanitary concern. In addition, they provide support for curators and their crews in addressing plant health concerns, providing disease diagnostics, and making disease management recommendations. Past research projects have focused on seedborne pathogens and have ranged from ecology (preventing infection), to developing and validating accurate detection methods, to determining the longevity of pathogens in seed. Screening of various crops for disease resistance is another activity in which the Plant Pathology Team has been involved.

Employment Activities: Employees will learn different disease diagnostic techniques and will learn to recognize plant disease symptoms on various crops. Special interest research projects related to seed health, disease resistance screening or pathogen detection, may be possible.


Farm Operations:  Fred Engstrom, Assistant Director of Research Administration; Brian Buzzell, Farm Equipment Mechanic.

Project Summary: The Facility Crew at the Plant Introduction Station takes care of the maintenance and security of the building site along with supporting the curation projects at the station. Greenhouses, cold rooms, growth chambers, offices, and equipment buildings are monitored for proper function and needed repairs are either performed or arranged with outside contractors. The Facilities Crew also performs land tillage and applies fertilizer and herbicides to the fields used by the station curators for growing seed increases.

Employment Activities: Employees on the Facility Crew enjoy a diversity of activities while providing support to the various NCRPIS projects. Requests for assistance are interspersed with routine tasks to keep the facility running smoothly. The combination of indoor and outdoor tasks year-round makes the Facilities Crew an ideal project for someone who has mechanical aptitude and a willingness to learn. We work with others as a team and individually depending upon the job so interpersonal skills are important as well as the ability to manage time.

Seasonal responsibilities vary from turf and field plot maintenance, plant harvesting, snow removal, facility and greenhouse repairs and upkeep, equipment operation and repair, and supporting project teams with their operational needs.

Employees are needed immediately. We employ students all year long. Federal funding source enables hiring of only US Citizens. All employees must be at least 16 years old. Employment could be counted as an internship if academic advisor and supervisor approve.

An agricultural background is helpful but not required. On the job training is provided. Most project teams work in outdoor conditions with exposure to heat, humidity, and insects.

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Wages: $15.00 per hour

For additional information contact:

Fred Engstrom
North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station
1305 State Ave
Ames, IA 50011

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