Each year, Alltech brings some of the world’s best minds to Kentucky for five days of conversations around one critical idea.
The international agri-science company based in Nicholasville also fosters the next generation of innovative thinkers with its Alltech Young Scientist program, a global competition for university students who are researching ways to transform agriculture on the planet.
This year’s winners were announced at the recent Alltech ONE conference held in late May in Lexington. Renee Shaw spoke with previous honorees and current Young Scientist Award nominees on KET’s Connections. She also talked with Aoife Lyons, Alltech’s director of educational initiatives and engagement.
The ONE conference has come a long way in its 33 years. Aoife Lyons, who is the daughter of Alltech founder and president Pearse Lyons, says the first conference was a more casual affair that drew about 100 people. Aoife was about eight years old then, and says she got to entertain the guests with her violin playing. Her father manned the grill and her mother coordinated the catering to ensure that everyone was well fed.
The 2017 conference at the Lexington Center drew some 4,000 attendees from nearly 80 countries to explore the topic of disruption. Lyons says the Young Scientist award is a key part of the annual conference as Alltech seeks to highlight breakthrough research conducted by college students.
“It’s about the new ideas, the disrupters, the innovators, and valuing young people and what they have to offer,” she says.
Lyons ran a children’s clinic in Chicago before joining Alltech full-time. As a clinical psychologist, she helps conduct employee screenings and selects recent college graduates to participate in the company’s career development program. She says Alltech’s hiring process focuses on the candidate’s motivation and interpersonal or so-called “soft skills.”
“We can teach the hard skills, we can teach the academic subjects. It’s hard to teach someone to be likeable,” Lyons says. “You’re likeable or you’re not.”
Investing in Innovators for the Future
Professors from the world’s top universities nominate students for the Alltech Young Scientist award. Undergraduate and graduate winners from four regional competitions receive a free trip to the ONE conference, where they present talks on their research work that can span health and nutrition for animals and humans, food safety issues, agricultural analytics, or crop production and disease control.
Alltech gives the undergraduate winner $5,000 and funds their PhD studies at the university of the winner’s choice. The graduate winner receives $10,000 and a fully funded, two year post-doctoral research position with Alltech.
Butler County native Alana Wright won the global undergraduate competition last year for her work on a new method to control the corn earworm, which causes billions of dollars of damage each year to cotton, sweet corn and other crops. As a University of Kentucky student, she sought to develop a process to mutate a naturally occurring virus so it will cause sterility in corn earworms and thus dramatically reduce their populations. She vividly remembers what it was like to await her turn to present her research at the 2016 ONE conference.
“We were so nervous – it’s such a big prize,” says Wright. “The preparation was crazy and it was intense… [but] just being here every year has been one of the best experiences of my life.”
Since winning the Young Scientist award, Wright has interned at Alltech, and she will start her PhD studies at the University of California, Davis later this year.
The 2016 graduate honoree was Richard Lally from Kildare, Ireland. He moved to Alltech’s Kentucky headquarters earlier this year to research a disease that’s devastating citrus groves in California, Florida, and in other parts of the world.
“By managing disease and controlling disease and helping boost plant performance, we are providing more food for a growing population,” he says.
Both Lally and Wright say technology plays a huge rule in agriculture these days. For example, farmers can monitor their croplands with satellites and drones, while scientists can genetically modify plants to resist pests and improve yields. Lally points to how genomes can now be sequenced for a few hundred dollars, when a decade ago it would have cost millions.
“I think technology is going to be a huge disruption in the coming years,” Wright says. “Incorporating technology into every stage of agriculture is going to disrupt everything we currently know.”
Among the undergraduate finalists for the 2017 Young Scientist awards were Sophie Hazelden of Nottingham Trent University in England, and Josh Gukowsky from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Hazelden is exploring ways to improve dietary supplements for baby pigs, and Gukowsky is using nanoparticles to detect antibiotic residues in the food supply.
“This year we encouraged students to think about the one disruptive idea that will transform the way we think about and work in agriculture in order for it to thrive and be sustainable,” said Lyons in a corporate announcement about the contest.
Professors from 36 countries nominated more than 150 students for this year’s contest. Lyons says each of the finalists “demonstrate their potential as the scientific leaders of tomorrow.”
Gukowsky won the undergraduate competition. As he prepares for his PhD work, he says he wants to explore more health and sustainability issues, as well as other challenges that arise as agriculture continues to evolve.
“It seems like such a great field, I don’t know why you’d want to do anything else,” Gukowsky says.
The global graduate winner was Jonas de Souza of Michigan State University for his research into fatty acids in dairy cows.