Three integrated plant biology students awarded fellowships

students in greenhouse
Three plant scientists were recognized for their outstanding character in the field and the classroom. Researchers Jensina Davis earned the Moseman Fellowship, Michael Tross earned the Life Sciences Award, and Nikee Shrestha earned the Widaman Distinguished Graduate Assistant Award.
September 12, 2023

Lincoln, Neb. —Plant science is an important building block of everyday life, especially when it comes to the crops that are grown and used every day to sustain human life and our precious world. The process of doing research, experimenting, writing papers, and collaborating takes intellect, resilience, strength, and dedication. Three plant scientists who embody these traits have been recognized for their outstanding character in the field and the classroom. The researchers who were recognized were Jensina Davis who earned the Moseman Fellowship, Michael Tross who earned the Life Sciences Award, and Nikee Shrestha who earned the Widaman Distinguished Graduate Assistant Award.

The Moseman Fellowship is awarded to a graduate student working in plant breeding or genetics. Students who share an interest in international agriculture and world food development may also apply. Jensina Davis is the Moseman 2023 recipient because of her love for plant genetics and her sharp intellect. Davis graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Agronomy and just completed her first year as a doctoral student in the Complex Biosystems (Integrated Plant Biology) program.  Davis shared that being selected for the fellowship felt like an acknowledgment that the work she is doing is headed in the right direction. The South Dakota native feels motivated to continue her research and appreciative of how being selected will build her resume.  She is grateful for the opportunities that have come from being a doctoral student in the Complex Biosystems (Integrated Plant Biology) program and from being a member of Prof. James Schnable’s lab, a member of UNL’s Center for Plant Science Innovation for the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture. Davis went onto describe what the program and this award meant to her. Davis said “The CBIO program and the Schnable lab have not only helped me develop my skills and research, but ultimately has helped me make friends and collaborative relationships that will last throughout my scientific career. I am very grateful for this award as it will help continue my research and development throughout the years to come! “Davis sees herself pursuing a job in the private sector after graduation where she hopes to focus on improving the profitability and sustainability of agriculture throughout the corn belt and across the world.   

The Life Sciences Award is a foundation donation given to an outstanding graduate student for their dedication in their academics and research.  Michael Tross is the recipient of this fellowship award for his outstanding dedication to his research and academics. Tross returned from an internship with Google as an AI resident when he was selected as one of only two recipients of the prestigious Life Sciences Award. A fourth-year doctoral student studying Integrated Plant Biology in the Complex Biosystems graduate program at UNL, Michael’s research has focused on using artificial intelligence and neural networks to interpret complex sensor datasets and identify genes in corn and sorghum-controlled natural variation in plant traits. Tross mentioned particularly how much he appreciated the opportunity to rotate through three different labs as a first-year graduate student, which allowed him to find the research group and research problem that was the best fit for him. Tross said “I feel like my time in the CBIO program has been life-changing for me because of the diversity of people from different backgrounds and the interdisciplinary nature of this program’s studies. I also believe my time in James Schnable’s lab has encouraged me to not only to pursue my passions and dreams, but to reach for this fellowship, so I am able to enhance my career and academic journey. “Tross hopes to find a position in the private sector after graduation working at the intersection of crop genetics and artificial intelligence.

The Widaman Distinguished Graduate Assistant Award was established in 1975 through the Nebraska Foundation, this award is given to a graduate student who shows dedication to their research and academics. Nikee Shrestha was the recipient of this award for her hard work in the classroom and her research. Nikee Shrestha joined the University of Nebraska last year after completing her master’s in plant genetics mapping genes in pearl millet, a drought and heat-tolerant crop at Oklahoma State University. Now, Nikee leads the efforts of the Schnable lab as part of the USDA and NSF-supported AI Institute for Resilient Agriculture (AIIRA) using satellite imagery to track the growth and stress of corn hybrids from the Mississippi river to the Nebraska/Wyoming board and quantitative genetics to identify genes that help sorghum use light for photosynthesis more efficiently. The fellowship is Nikee’s second since joining the Complex Biosystems-Integrated Plant Biology doctoral program, having been selected as a FFAR Career Development Fellow in the fall of 2022. Nikee mentioned particularly appreciating the Widaman award as the additional funding will allow her to focus more on her research. She mentioned “I felt grateful after earning this fellowship. This fellowship will significantly boost my resume and enhance my credibility and prospects for a better career path. Winning these fellowships such as this one motivates me to work even harder in my journey throughout graduate school. I feel appreciated and recognized for the research I am doing, and it has reaffirmed my passion for research. This fellowship also provides me financial security, so I can focus on other factors like my academics, research, and personal life.” Shrestha went on to give a piece of advice to anyone who wants to follow in her career path. She mentioned “The most important thing I have learned throughout my career so far is hard work and perseverance takes many places. I have realized that success is not always about having all the knowledge or skills from the start; rather it is about the relentless pursuit of one’s goals and the willingness to put in the work required to achieve them. No one starts the journey with all the answers, but with dedication and determination, you can reach anywhere you desire of.” Shrestha’s goal after completing her PhD is to change the world through research in plant science whether that be in academia or industry!

Fellowships provide a source of extra financial stability and support, important factors to every student’s academic career. But in addition to the tangible benefits of funding, fellowships also provide something less tangible but equally important: recognition and reassurance that scientist’s hard work, sacrifices, and achievements are being recognized and appreciated. Ensuring the profitability, sustainability, and resilience of agriculture in the coming decades will take both hard work and innovative breakthroughs. Fortunately, these students and the many others in their cohort in the Integrated Plant Biology program are both motivated and prepared to take on the challenge

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