UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Several undergraduates in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences have a ringside view in moving research from the lab to the marketplace thanks to a unique opportunity offered through the college’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation program.
The Harbaugh Undergraduate Research Assistantship, funded by Earl Harbaugh, a 1961 alumnus of the college, and his wife, Kay, pairs undergraduate students with faculty who are working on research with commercial potential.
The goal is to provide the students with mentoring and hands-on experience in advancing research into practice, according to Mark Gagnon, Harbaugh Entrepreneur and Innovation Faculty Scholar.
“We seek to engage, develop and empower tomorrow’s innovators in agricultural sciences,” Gagnon said. “This mentor-driven experience is helping students not only to expand their scientific skills but also to understand the processes involved with bringing breakthrough technologies to the marketplace, which is the nexus of commercialization.”
Students are mentored on relevant issues in entrepreneurship and commercialization, such as intellectual property, product development, professional communication, business models and pitching ideas to potential investors.
“It takes a special student to engage in research as an undergraduate, and these undergraduates are excelling with the additional mentorship that comes with the Harbaugh program,” Gagnon said.
Maria Schultheis, of Connellsville, a fourth-year animal science major, is among those students. She has worked in the research laboratory of Gino Lorenzoni, assistant professor of poultry science and avian health, for the past year.
One of Lorenzoni’s studies focuses on preventing avian necrotic enteritis, a bacterial disease that causes lesions in the digestive tract of chickens. The disease has a high mortality rate and is responsible for economic losses of almost $6 billion globally, according to Schultheis.
“Antibiotics have been used to control the disease, but antibiotic resistance is a growing concern, plus consumers don’t want antibiotics in their meat,” said the first-generation college student. “A solution is to find effective and affordable alternatives for poultry producers.”
Schultheis said Lorenzoni’s work is aimed at solving the problem by developing a feed that can reduce disease symptoms, reduce mortality and increase growth performance for infected broilers. The team is pursuing a provisional patent on the technology.
Schultheis began her college journey at the Penn State Fayette campus, where she said she was fortunate to have been given the opportunity to work in the lab of Julio Palma, assistant professor of chemistry, where she aided research on how amino acids and gold atoms can be used as electronic components in photovoltaic technology to create a more efficient solar panel.
During campus breaks, she works as a room assistant at Animal Medical Center of Somerset under the mentorship of veterinarian and Penn State alumnus Vincent Svonavec. Her future career goal is to become a veterinarian and operate her own animal clinic.
Schultheis said those experiences, along with the knowledge she is gaining through the Harbaugh Undergraduate Research Assistantship program, are positioning her to achieve that goal.
“Through this assistantship, I’ve learned how to take research and turn it into something that can be applied in the real world,” she said. “I also am developing skills that will be valuable when I start a business someday. I am grateful for the incredible opportunities that have come my way thanks to the college and Penn State.”
Looking ahead, Gagnon and colleague Maria Spencer, John and Patty Warehime Entrepreneur in Residence, anticipate matching more exceptional undergraduates with innovative faculty who benefit from the students’ contributions.
“Through the generosity of Earl and Kay Harbaugh, we can continue serving both students and faculty in this way,” Spencer said. “In a few years, we may have students who can point to products on the market and say, ‘I’m a part of that.’”
Established in 2013, the Entrepreneurship and Innovation program in the College of Agricultural Sciences adds value to new ideas and research discoveries by encouraging an entrepreneurial mindset among students and faculty.
Part of Invent Penn State, a statewide initiative to drive job creation, economic development and student career success by connecting students and faculty researchers with people who can help bring their products and services to the marketplace, the program sponsors an academic minor, a startup business competition for students and the competitive Research Applications for Innovation, or RAIN, grant program.