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NCAUR Student Internships
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 2023 NCAUR Student Internship Applications are

no longer being accepted.

Application Deadline March 10, 2023




2023 Summer Internship Lab Experiences

Appell: The current research in the Appell lab is in chemical aspects of food safety. Food safety is important for supporting public health and reducing foodborne illness. Occasionally, agricultural commodities can be contaminated with fungi capable of producing toxins, known as mycotoxins. The research develops better ways to detect and reduce levels of mycotoxins in commodities used in food and feed. The technology developed uses a combination of analytical chemistry, cheminformatics, and materials science.

Broders: The USDA-ARS Culture Collection, at the AgLab in Peoria, IL is looking for student interns interested in microbiology. The goal of our research is to characterize the genetic diversity of fungi and bacteria in the culture collection. The microbes in the ARS Culture Collection are used by our user communities for various applications including biological control of pests, food and beverage fermentation, biofuel conversion, diagnostics development, synthetic biology, molecular genetics, and antibiotic discovery and development. The success of all these projects depends on proper DNA-based identification of strain in our collection. The intern will learn how to culture fungi and bacteria, extract DNA, design primers, run a polymerase chain reaction (PCR), sequence genes of interest, edit sequence data and then use phylogenetic methods to make species level identifications.

Cermak: The Cermak Lab is located within the Bio-Oils Research (BOR) at the AgLab in Peoria, IL. We develop new commodity plant oils and commercially viable industrial bio‐based products from new and existing vegetable oils that are technically and economically competitive with or superior to comparable existing commercial petroleum‐derived materials. As part of this goal, the intern will conduct a series of chemical reactions to optimize reactions to make a biobased hydroxy fatty acid. Reactions will be done in a Parr reactor under pressure and product evaluations will done with gas chromatography (GC), gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS), high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). Once reaction conditions are optimized, material will be scaled up to provide starting materials to make biobased lubricants. The intern will gain hands-on experience in an organic synthetic laboratory working in a team atmosphere.

Doll: A potential intern position in the BOR lab will work on the synthesis of fuels from vegetable oils. Initial work will involve preparation of reaction samples, entailing detailed measurements of a series of different substrates and catalysts. After reaction, the samples will be analyzed for conversion by gas chromatography, and the results will be compiled and used to determine the next set of catalytic experiments. This project will build basic chemical reaction skills and instrumental analysis familiarity.

Hay: The Hay lab is in the Mycotoxin Prevention and Applied Microbiology Unit at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, IL. We investigate the effects of changing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations on cereal crop disease resistance and plant performance. Our goal is to identify traits that improve crop climate resilience and disease resistance to mycotoxigenic fungal pathogens. Additionally, we research the use of plant derived antimicrobials to protect U.S cereal crops pre- and post-harvest. As a member of a research team, the intern would assist in the growth and assessment of wheat and barley under elevated carbon dioxide concentrations - including evaluating plant photosynthetic performance, metabolic gene expression, and fungal disease susceptibility. Due to the multidisciplinary nature of the research the student is expected to gain skills in plant physiology, plant pathology, microbiology, molecular biology, confocal and scanning electron microscopy, and flour quality evaluation.

Johnson: The Eric Johnson laboratory is part of the Crop Bioprotection Unit at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Illinois. We study organisms, primarily bacteria, that can promote growth and reduce disease in U.S. crops. One major focus is engineering Bacillus bacteria to produce potent antifungal compounds that damage pests of plants. A second goal is discovering organisms that produce antimicrobial compounds. Students in our laboratory will learn molecular biology techniques as well as basic microbiology to achieve their research goals. Specific techniques students will use in this research include PCR amplification, DNA gene cloning, DNA sequencing, fungi and bacteria culturing, and performing growth assays to identify antimicrobial compounds.

Kenar: The Kenar Lab is located within the Functional Food Research Unit at the AgLab in Peoria, IL. Our research examines the use of various lipids to form amylose inclusion complexes from starch that can used to influence the properties of the starch and pulse (dry bean) flours. Part of our goal also examines the use of various processing methods to produce these complexes. The student intern will be directly involved with ongoing projects that further these goals. Specifically, the student will gain skills in organic, carbohydrate, and processing chemistry. They will also learn basic laboratory skills, such as pipetting, setting up reactions, running chemical reactions, methods and analyses, and learn instrumentation such as HPLC, GC, and SEM. The student will also gain skills in data management and organization using Microsoft Excel.

Kim: The Kim lab is focused on genetic and metabolic diversity of mycotoxigenic fungi, Fusarium and the molecular interaction between these fungi and their plant hosts (e.g. Wheat, Barley and Corn). The research uses computational biology and artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) bioinformatic tools for developing novel solution to predict and determine what
kinds of Fusarium species have a genetic potential to cause crop disease and produce mycotoxin. These genomic and AI/ML approaches will aid in developing control strategies to reduce the impact of Fusarium crop diseases and constructing a novel bioactivity-focused informatics database on the potential agricultural risks posed by Fusarium species and their toxins. The student will gain skills in general molecular biology techniques such as DNA/RNA
isolation, PCR and Next-Generation Sequencing and a diverse array of computational biology and bioinformatics analyses to solve a biological question.

Liu: Soybean is the second largest crop plant in the United States, accounting for about 31% of planted acreage, just behind corn, which accounts for about 35%. For example, 10.2 Million Metric Ton (MMT) of soybean oil was produced in the U.S. and about 9.3 MMT were consumed for food and industrial use. The U.S. frequently carries an oversupply of approximately 1 MMT of soybean oil yearly. Thus, there is a need to develop new uses for the surplus soybean oil, in other words, development of value-added industrial products. In this project, we try to use chemically modified soybean oil, the acylated epoxidized soybean oil (AESO), to be polymerized through uv light. The formed soy-based polymers would be reinforced with silica. Final processing would be performed with 3D printing techniques. By doing this, a student will learn the 3D printing technique and investigate the physical properties of composites.

McCormick: The McCormick Lab is located within the Mycotoxin Prevention & Applied Microbiology Unit at the AgLab in Peoria, IL. We research the fungus Fusarium that infects wheat and barley and the toxins that are produced by the fungus in crops. The student intern will assist in ongoing projects to identify which toxins are produced by different fungi and how they are detoxified by plants and other fungi. Specifically, the student will gain skills in basic
microbiology by growing fungi using the sterile technique. The student will also gain skills in organic and analytical chemistry including extraction and chromatography and operation of gas chromatography and mass spectrometer machines to identify which toxins are produced and measure how much is produced. They will also gain experience in data management and organization using Microsoft Excel.

Nichols: The Bioenergy Research Unit at NCAUR in Peoria, IL develops new microbe-based processes to advance production of renewable fuels and chemicals from agricultural fibrous residues and perennial grasses harvested as bioenergy crops. The intern will investigate a series of genetically similar yeast strains, that have between one and four copies of their genome, for growth in unrefined biomass sugars. The hypothesis is that increased ploidy (e.g. copy number) affords greater robustness for growth. In support of the project, the student will learn methods for converting biomass to sugars, maintaining yeast cultures, and conducting fermentations, along with statistical analysis of results. The intern will rotate among three laboratories within BER and will gain basic laboratory skills such as media and buffer preparation, aseptic technique, optical density measurements, use of an image analyzer to measure yeast viability, and HPLC measurement of sugars and ethanol.

Opoku: The Opoku laboratory focusses on determining how environmental variables, production practices, and diversity of mycotoxigenic fungi affect disease severity and mycotoxin contamination. His overarching goal is to contribute to the development of epidemiological models to predict the severity of mycotoxin contamination in corn.

Wegener: The Wegener Lab is in the Renewable Product Technology research unit at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, IL. Our research focuses on using catalysts to convert agricultural resources into renewable chemicals, fuels, and consumer products. The intern will assist with ongoing work to convert butanol, produced by fermenting crop residues, into chemicals for uses in bio-based polymers and jet fuel. As a member of the research team the student will gain experience in catalyst synthesis and characterization, performing chemical reactions, and product analysis.

Whitaker: The Whitaker Lab is located within the Mycotoxin Prevention & Applied Microbiology Unit at the AgLab in Peoria, IL. We research how beneficial bacterial and fungal partners can be recruited to help reduce disease from the pathogen Fusarium graminearum in wheat and barley. As part of this goal, the student intern will assist in ongoing projects to identify how select bacterial and fungal partners impact wheat and barley growth. Specifically, the student will gain skills in plant growth and maintenance, basic microbiology skills such as growing microbiota, pipetting and inoculating plants with microbiota, and sterile technique. The student will also gain skills in data management and organization goals. Specifically, the student will gain skills in organic, carbohydrate, and processing chemistry. They will also learn basic laboratory skills, such as pipetting, setting up reactions, running chemical reactions, methods and analyses, and learn instrumentation such as HPLC, GC, and SEM. The student will also gain skills in data management and organization using Microsoft Excel. The student will meet with Dr. Whitaker weekly to discuss the experiment and formulate scientific hypotheses as to the results.

Xu: Agricultural wastes such as corn stover, sorghum stover, wheat straws, soybean stover have very little economic value. Currently, they are mainly used for fuels or plowed back into soil. However, they are good inexpensive, renewable sources for value-added biomaterials such as hemicellulose, cellulose, and lignin. Researchers in the Plant Polymer research unit (PPL) have shown nano-cellulose and hemicellulose developed from corn stover are good value-added biomaterials. Nano-cellulose forms a uniform gel, which has many applications in hydrogels, food products, cosmetic gels, drug delivery, and wound healing materials. Hemicellulose can be used in thermoplastics, coatings and additives in papermaking, and cosmetic materials. The successful student will work with a team of scientists to produce nano-cellulose and hemicellulose from soybean stover, characterize their properties, and identify potential applications. The perspective student will learn extraction procedures for natural products, such as how to make solutions and media, separations of substances, purifying and condensing materials and other experimental laboratory procedures. Skills to learn include gel filtration, centrifugation, FT-IR spectroscopy, extrusion, homogenization, and rheology. While conducting the studies, the student will deepen their knowledge of chemistry, polymer materials, extraction of natural products, reaction mechanisms, and interactions between substances.


9 Interns from across Illinois participated in the summer 2022 NCAUR Internship Program


"Thank you so much for giving me a great experience with the USDA and chemistry jobs in general. This was my first time working in a science field, although I've wanted to for a while. This will be insanely helpful for my future and I cannot thank you enough."

"I genuinely appreciate this experience. I've seen this building a million times and wondered what was happening inside. I would have never guessed a giant government think tank."