UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will enhance an innovative Penn State graduate training program in entomology and ecology aimed at helping to solve the multifaceted problem of pollinator decline.
The $262,000 award will support the Graduate Training Program in Integrative Pollinator Ecology offered by Penn State's Center for Pollinator Research. The funding comes from the National Needs Graduate Fellowship Program sponsored by USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
The five-year USDA grant will support three graduate fellows for three years each, according to Christina Grozinger, director of the Center for Pollinator Research. Additional funding for a fourth student will be provided by the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences' Intercollege Graduate Program in Ecology.
"The goal of our program is to provide students with holistic training, not only across science disciplines, but also in terms of communicating science to diverse audiences," said Grozinger, distinguished professor of entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences.
Nearly 90 percent of flowering plant species and 75 percent of global agricultural crops use animal-mediated pollination to set seed and produce fruit. Pollination services contribute $25 billion to the U.S. economy in the form of increased crop yield alone and $20 billion in additional value to agriculture-related sectors.
But scientists are seeking solutions to sharp declines in managed and wild pollinators around the world. American beekeepers lose an average of 30 percent of their honey bee colonies each winter and 25 percent during the summer to a combination of factors, including parasitic mites, viral diseases and loss of habitat and food sources.
"It's critical that we find approaches that will support abundant and diverse communities of pollinators in our agricultural lands to ensure robust and sustainable pollination services," Grozinger said.
"Pollinator issues don't have a simple solution, they are complex and challenging," she stressed. "We want to train the next generation of scientists to take an integrative approach and tackle real-world issues at multiple levels, whether it's looking at genomics, physiology, behavior, chemical ecology, evolution or other fields."
Grozinger explained that fellows in the program have two co-advisers, each from different scientific disciplines. The graduate students have flexibility to create projects that span their co-advisers' disciplines, leading to new research directions for the Center for Pollinator Research.
Translating and communicating scientific information to various audiences is a cornerstone of the program, Grozinger noted. "We want fellows to incorporate outreach into their projects and to take leadership in communicating with appropriate audiences," she said. "It could be reaching out to K-12 students, growers, beekeepers, policymakers or others."
The program also has an international component. Grozinger said the USDA grant contains funding to support graduate fellows' travel to conduct research with collaborators in places such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Kenya, Colombia, China, Australia and other countries. "This enables them to learn new skills, transfer knowledge to a new location and see how things work in different types of ecosystems."
The USDA grant builds on funding the program received last year through the College of Agricultural Sciences' Strategic Networks and Initiatives Program. The college grant provided funding for four current graduate students.
The ideal applicant, said Grozinger, is creative, has a strong academic background and research experience — though not necessarily related to pollinators — and is broad-minded, with the ability to look at problems from different perspectives.
"We want to train fellows broadly for diverse careers, and we want them to have a wealth of transferable skills and expertise in sustainable agriculture and conservation that can be applied in a variety of positions, whether in academia, government, research institutions, nonprofits or industry," she said.
The application deadline for the program is Dec. 20. More information is available on the Center for Pollinator Research website.