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PHCC students ripen knowledge with their internships in Danville
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Alicia Nester (left) and Alysha Lawless (right) are interning for Dan River Plants this summer in Danville. Students are learning how to handle plant tissue cultures and conducting other experiments to study plant growth. (Contributed photo)

Friday, June 14, 2013

Two Patrick Henry Community College students are spending their summer in Danville learning how to handle plant tissue cultures at Dan River Plants, according to a release from PHCC.

Alicia Nester and Alysha Lawless, students in the PHCC Agribusiness Program, started their paid internships May 1 and will complete them Aug. 1, the release said. Mark Osborne, general manager of Dan River Plants, said he hopes to expose them to the culture process and involve them in transplanting plants from the lab to the greenhouse.

“It is an internship, but they’re expected to work a normal schedule like any of our other full-time employees,” he said in the release.

“They’re really polite young ladies that follow instructions very well, and they’re pleasant to be around. Young folks have a certain enthusiasm and energy level that’s creates a nice work environment.”

Nester and Lawless are working on dividing miscanthus plants, which are a bio-renewable crop used to produce fuels, plastics and other materials. After dividing the plant, they transfer the pieces into individual jars to experiment with different media, a liquid solution in which the plants grow, according to the release.

Lawless also is working with angel’s trumpet and a project with azaleas to see which media will help them root better.

“I’ve enjoyed this internship a lot, and I’m learning a lot of different techniques of ways to grow,” she said. “I really think it will help me in the long run with what I want to do.”

Lawless is planning to attend PHCC this fall and next spring before transferring to Virginia Tech to pursue a degree in horticulture. Eventually, she said she would like to teach horticulture or practice an agriculture-related trade such as landscaping.

In addition to her work with miscanthus, Nester said she also is testing sun bags instead of jars to see what effects each medium will yield.

“It’s great getting all this hands-on experience and seeing how things work in a lab,” she said in the release. “I’ve learned a lot, and it will help me when I plan to attend Virginia Tech next fall.”

Her plans include possibly owning her own horticulture business, such as a greenhouse, or teaching horticulture.

John Ayers, associate professor of agribusiness and horticulture at PHCC, recommended Nester and Lawless to Osborne for this summer’s internship. He said they both are excellent students with interests in plant science and are hoping to pursue higher education in the field.

“The internships are a good résumé builder and great experience to work in a facility like that,” he said in the release. “It’s a high-level research institute, and those students are gaining professional skills.”

Ayers said an opportunity like this is not “small potatoes.”

“These are not plants you can go to Walmart and buy. They’re very specific types of plant material,” he added in the release. “They may produce 1,000 plants from a single plant, and all of them have to be identical. It’s a growing industry and a very unique type of plant propagation.”

Osborne said the lab’s scientists work in several different areas of research in the horticulture industry that include breeding new plants and creating technology to grow plants more efficiently. Out of this research, he said the Dan River Propagation Center has propagated plants through tissue culture and built a list of plants it offers to the nursery industry in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast.

“We’re becoming Dan River Plants LLC, which is a private, for-profit company,” he said. “So we’re growing, we’re expanding, creating jobs and adding new products as a part of the mission to serve the six-county region.”

Although many people may find that jobs in the region are scarce, Osborne said there are opportunities in agribusiness in the region.

“It’s still the largest industry in Pittsylvania County,” he said in the release. “I think any students wanting to start a career can do so. The more education they have, the better off they will be.”

Melanie Barrow, an extension agent in the Henry County/Martinsville Virginia Cooperative Extension Office, said agriculture is declining in the area, but there still are opportunities for professionals.

“I think there’s a real opportunity in the nursery business, which is one thing I would like to see more of in this area,” she said. “I can see that becoming something big here because we do have some fallow land sitting around that would do well for that type of industry. ... But if they’re wanting to get out into the large industry of agribusiness, that’s something they may have to leave the area for.”

Barrow added that many surrounding counties, such as Patrick, Pittsylvania and Franklin, are more rural and tend to be more agricultural-based.

Dan River Plants is a commercial spinoff for the Institute for Sustainable and Renewable Resources (ISSR), which was created by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech and the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR).


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