Studying Soil Abroad to Save Cotton at Home

May 24, 2019

Texas Tech grad student Shelby Young grew up watching her father farm and run cattle in Plainview. But she wasn’t around cotton until high school when she saw researchers studying it. Now, Young is headed to Australia for 10 months as a Fulbright student researcher to study a damaging fungus that afflicts cotton fields there and in the US. 

Texas Tech graduate student Shelby Young nearly pulled herself out of applying for a grant from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. She had too much on her plate during the application process, she thought. 

But with help and guidance from National and International Scholarships & Fellowships Office in the Honors College, Young earned a grant to go to Australia in July to begin a 10-month research project studying a fungal disease that afflicts cotton plants in the US and there. 

"Oh my goodness! I have never gotten an email that just took a minute for me to catch my breath. I cried a little bit, just kind of sitting on the couch reading the email on my phone because I was not expecting to get it so soon. I think it was about a month earlier than they gave the window, which if they did that on purpose, I think that's really precious. It really added to the effect. But I'm still a little bit in disbelief. I don't think it's going to be totally real until I'm there."

Young grew up in Plainview where her father is a farmer. She says he grew cotton at some point but she really didn’t know much about the fluffy fiber. The Fulbright grant allows her to work with researchers at Western Sydney University in New South Wales. It be her third, and longest, trip to Australia. 

"I never really was around cotton until I started working at Texas A&M Agrilife Research in high school, at the halfway station, which is right across the road from my parents' house. So for a high school job when you live out in the middle of nowhere, it's perfect. And that's really where I got interested in the cotton research, and it's so cool as a high school kid to be able to see where all this science is. I learned a ton."

She got her bachelor's degree in plant and soil science from Tech. She’ll graduate in August with a master’s in the same field. 

She’ll study verticillium wilt, which can injure or kill many types of plants, including cotton. The wilt comes from a soil fungus called Verticillium dahliae, which lives in soil as small, darkened structures called microsclerotia. When cotton roots grow close to these structures, the fungus germinates and infects the roots through wounds or natural openings. 

"It colonizes the vascular system of the plant and if you cut a cotton stem open, you can see that it's got some browning in there. So it kind of chokes off the water intake and the nutrient intake, and so your plant wilts."

Young will look at nutrient levels of nitrogen, potassium and also different irrigation levels in cotton fields. She’ll work to quantify how many of the microslerotia are in Australia and compare that with US cotton fields. She’s collaborating with an Australian researcher on a methodology. 

Currently, there is no known chemical control for this disease. 

"To know how much disease pressure you're going to have, you can isolate those little microsclerotia and count them and say this field has a ton, this field doesn't have very many, and you can kind of plan accordingly to how severe and how much of the disease you plan to have, ideally. It's not always that easy, it's always a little bit of guessing. So we looked at different methods to count those guys."

The Fulbright U.S. student program is one part of the Fulbright program. It was established in 1946 under legislation introduced by then senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas.

Part of the Fulbright grant requires Young, who also is working toward a second master’s – this one in AgriBusiness - to engage with agriculture-based groups nearby where she’ll be based, a town of about 12,000 that’s about six hours northeast of Sydney.

"For my community engagement, I'm going to do really the agricultural communities. There are groups like Women in Agriculture and the cotton producers, and the corn producers and we have the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, they have similar groups as that. Just seeing how they structure their producer groups compared to ours will be really interesting. It's also nice because I love field research but I'm also very social, so getting to meet that many more people with more experiences, I'm very excited about."