“What we really want to find is a line that produces just as much in drought as another line under normal conditions.”
It’s Saturday afternoon and while other students are enjoying football games or movies with friends, Sarah Blecha is in a University of Nebraska-Lincoln greenhouse, browsing aisles of wheat. She’s in pursuit of a variety of wheat that can shake off drought’s knockout blows and keep on growing. In her search, the first-year agronomy graduate student takes daily measurements of things like photosynthesis and stomatal conductance. And with the help of her adviser, Daugherty Water for Food Institute Faculty Fellow and University of Nebraska-Lincoln agronomist Harkamal Walia, Blecha is getting a crash course in how a plant’s genetic background influences its tolerance to drought.
In August 2014, the Water for Food Institute awarded its inaugural round of student support grants to faculty fellows. The grants provide stipends to students like Blecha who are working on projects that contribute to a more water and food secure world. For Blecha, who spends 40 hours per week between the lab and greenhouse, this means a patient, persistent quest to find wheat varieties that can feed a hotter and hungrier planet. “Hopefully people in other countries with drought problems – or even in America – can use this to keep food production stable.” Professionally, the Omaha native wants to parlay this experience towards government research. “My main career goal is to work for the USDA or Agricultural Research Service.”
Of course, unless her research breaks news beyond the greenhouse, it will wither in the ground. But she says Walia is determined to broaden the impact of her research. “He really challenges you and wants you to succeed too. He wants to make sure your project is definitely seen in the scientific community as a major step forward. I really like that.”