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Ruchika Awarded 2020 Curt Stern Scholarship

Tuesday, October 20, 2020
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Ruchika Ruchika
       Ruchika Ruchika never dreamed she’d have a career in agriculture. “I wanted to become a doctor!” she recalls.
       But during her undergraduate work in her home country of India, she developed an interest in plant breeding and plant pathology and changed her career path. 
       “I got my master’s in plant pathology, and it was really interesting.  I had my own field trials; my curiosity was sparked. I thought, ‘Why not become a scientist?’ ”
       Ruchika earned the highest scores possible in her master’s program, and her adviser recommended she pursue her Ph.D. abroad.  She completed her master’s in July 2019; by August of that same year, she was in Brookings, S.D., ready to begin her doctorate studies at South Dakota State University.
       “I had a 15-day gap,” Ruchika says with a laugh.
       Her work at SDSU is centered around sunflower and Phomopsis.  Ruchika’s advisor is Dr. Febina Mathew, SDSU associate professor and field crops pathologist.
       This research is brand new to Ruchika; in fact, so is sunflower.  “I have never worked with sunflower before, but I wanted to study a different pathogen, so sunflower is perfect,” she explains.  “Phomopsis is a major disease in sunflower.  It causes heavy losses; there are many problems scientists and farmers face, and I am trying to sum up those problems.”
       Ruchika’s research objective is to “identify fungicide sensitivity and candidate resistance genes for fungi causing Phomopsis stem canker in sunflower.” Her research is being conducted in the field as well as in the lab and includes every aspect of pathology.
       “Solutions I find could really help the farmers,” she says.
       Ruchika explains that until now, there have been very limited options to manage Phomopsis stem canker.  She says crop rotation is not effective, as the fungus can survive even in corn and wheat without showing symptoms.  That means growers may not know the fungus is present.  She adds that there are no commercial hybrids completely resistant to the disease, and also no fungicides designed specifically for Phomopsis.
       Ruchika’s goal is to develop a fungicide that is effective and can be adopted by farmers to stop the disease.  She also hopes to find genes that are resistant to the fungus.  She says that will help breeders.
       “These genes can be used as markers to breed for resistance to the pathogen. That will be really helpful in developing completely resistant varieties.”
       Her timeline is tight; Ruchika planted sunflower in North and South Dakota and Nebraska in 2020 and has been studying those fields throughout the growing season.  By the spring of 2021, she hopes to have her fungicide sensitivity experiment complete, as well as her sequencing work.
       The India native says coming to South Dakota was the best move for her research. “Farmers are growing sunflower here. It is a major crop in South Dakota and neighboring states.  It is good for me to do this work in South Dakota,” she notes. “And working with Febina Mathew is wonderful.  She is hard working and goal oriented.  She is always there to guide and help me understand sunflower, which is a totally new crop to me.
       “The study here is different than at home in India, but it is good.  And I am happy to be working with the National Sunflower Association, and to have received the Curtis Stern Scholarship.”
       The Stern Scholarship is presented annually by the National Sunflower Association to outstanding students who study in the field of agriculture, with a special emphasis on sunflower production, promotion or research.  It was established in honor of the late Curtis Stern, a longtime industry advocate and former NSA board member. 
— Jody Kerzman                                   
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