USDA Grants $40,000 for Minority College Students to 'Search the Guts of Beetle Larvae'

By Elizabeth Harrington | February 11, 2013 | 2:10pm EST

(Photo: Wikipedia)

( – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administered a $40,000 grant for college students and their professors in Mississippi to “crack open logs” and “search the guts of beetle larvae.”

Delta State University in Mississippi professors Tanya McKinney and Ellen Green received funding for the project as part of a $210,000 USDA initiative to "develop the next generation of minority scientists."

“They (students) crack open logs and extract beetle larvae that they then dissect,” said Green in describing the program.

“Students get to experience what real scientists do on an everyday basis,” said McKinney.

“As part of their research experience, students in the program search the guts of beetle larvae to discover new cellulases, enzymes that break down cellulose, an organic compound that helps make plant cell walls rigid,” the USDA said.  Cellulases are being studied as a way to turn woody biomass into biofuels, though the department says this process is “still in the experimental stage.”

The USDA administered the grants through the Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) to “under-represented institutions” to offer short research studies or training opportunities to their students.

The SRS sent requests for project proposals to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) institutions across the South.

In describing the total grants of $210,000, SRS Director Jim Reaves said, “The Forest Service seeks to hire experts from a wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds so that its research division reflects the diversity of America. These grants are just one example of how the Forest Service is working to help ensure minority researchers are among the nation’s next generation of scientists."

Delta State, in Cleveland, Miss., enrolls more than 4,000 students, 39.6 percent of which are African American.  The University has a 45 percent graduation rate.

Nathan Schiff, research entomologist with the USDA’s Center for Bottomland Hardwoods Research, said the students were “quite enthusiastic” about extracting the beetle larvae, and “seemed to be getting an understanding of the scientific method.”

“They seem more advanced than I was at this stage,” he said, “and I expect that some of them will turn to a career in research.”

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