SDSU students rewarded for original scientific research

BROOKINGS – Neha Neha, a doctoral student in dairy and food science, and Kaitlyn Abrahamson, a master’s student in geography, have been named recipients of South Dakota State University’s Joseph F. Nelson Graduate Scholarship. The award, which recognizes original scientific research, provides each student with $2,500 for tuition and expenses.

Neha is developing a risk assessment model for the foodborne pathogen Listeria under the direction of dairy science professor Sanjeev Anand. This cold-loving pathogen, which impacts dairy products, meats and vegetables, is the third leading cause of death from foodborne illnesses.

Specifically, Neha is targeting injured cells and their potential to recover in ice cream and cause infection. Her research will provide guidance to the dairy industry for developing robust Listeria risk mitigation approaches. This important research aligns with the Food Modernization Act and provides a novel approach to strengthen food safety efforts for safer food processing and handling.

Neha’s research, which involves collaboration with leading food safety experts from the U.S. dairy industry, is supported by the Midwest Dairy Foods Research Center.  The risk models will help the dairy industry identify the role of Listeria cross contamination and control this organism in the manufacturing environment.

“This recognition motivates me to work harder,” said Neha, who is in the third year of her doctoral studies. Anand agreed: “It’s a huge recognition that at the same time brings credibility to what you are doing and serves as a motivator for higher accomplishments. Neha is an outstanding researcher whose work has been acknowledged at local and national levels.”

Abrahamson is evaluating the effect of biochar made from corn stalks and leaves as a soil additive for soybeans in Brookings County. Her adviser is assistant geography professor Yanan (Nancy) Li.

“Kaitlyn is a motivated, creative and independent student who has the ambition to make the world a better place,” Li said. “This scholarship honors her effort in researching soil and crops using geospatial techniques.”

Biochar, which looks like charcoal, is a carbon-rich byproduct of the thermochemical process called pyrolysis. The process uses high temperatures in the absence of oxygen to convert plant matter into bio-oil, which must be further processed to become biofuel.

 Abrahamson became interested in research during her junior year when she worked on a project evaluating biochar’s impact on vegetable growth and quality.  

“I am appreciative for having the opportunity to do undergraduate research and for the great faculty members in the geography department who have encouraged me,” Abrahamson said. She will complete her thesis this semester.

“Biochar can potentially reduce erosion and maintain soil fertility and health while improving yield and productivity,” explained Abrahamson. She received partial support for her thesis project from AmericaView, a nationwide, university-based consortium that funds research utilizing remote sensing techniques. 

To evaluate the overall soybean health, Abrahamson took multispectral images of soybeans during the growing season. 

“I used red and near infrared light to calculate a normalized vegetation index,” she explained. “This tells me how vivacious the plant is.” The vegetation index shows how heat and water stress differ among the control and experimental plots.

Through the vegetation index, Abrahamson said, “I’ve seen a little bit better soybean health with biochar, but not a statistically significant difference.” However, she’s still analyzing her data and anticipates that the main differences will occur in biomass weight and soybean yield.

SDSU photos: Above, South Dakota State University graduate student Kaitlyn Abrahamson, left, dilutes a soil sample to determine its pH as part of a research project to evaluate the impact of biochar on soybean health and productivity. Her research adviser is assistant professor of geography Yanan (Nancy) Li.

Below, South Dakota State University doctoral student Neha Neha and professor Sanjeev Anand examine Listeria colonies, as part of research to improve Listeria risk assessment models, particularly with regard to heat-injured cells. More robust risk assessment models will help food manufacturers enhance food safety protocols and thus protect consumers from foodborne illnesses.


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