Benton Awards

CANR announces 2012 Benton graduate student award winners

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3:25 p.m., June 25, 2012--The University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) has announced the winners of the 2012 William J. Benton Graduate Student Awards. The 2012 recipients are Rachael Vaicunas, Jixian Zhai and Kirsten Hirneisen.

The awards were established in honor of William J. Benton, former CANR associate dean of research and professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences (ANFS).

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Rachael Vaicunas

Vaicunas received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Department of Bioresources Engineering, and she said that studying in the department “was a great experience because it provided me with valuable skills that will be useful for my future as an engineer.” 

She is researching water quality throughout the state of Delaware, specifically looking at “concentrations of hormones and antibiotics in surface waters across the state and how different land uses affect water quality.” 

Vaicunas said that receiving the Benton Award has made her “feel like I brought value to the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.” She also wanted to acknowledge her graduate adviser, Shreeram Inamdar, associate professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences (PLSC), as she called him “a great mentor and motivator throughout my time at UD.” 

Jixian Zhai

Zhai, a doctoral student in CANR, said his research focuses on understanding the roles of small RNA molecules in plant development and disease resistance. He conducts his research by utilizing high throughput sequencing technology, studying the small RNA molecules in a variety of plant species. 

Zhai said that he is “really honored to receive this award and very grateful to the donors who always support graduate research in CANR. I believe this is an important step in my career and I am deeply motivated to live up to the expectation of this prestigious award.” 

Zhai called his adviser, Blake Meyers, Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences and chair of the department, an “extraordinary adviser” and he wanted to thank Meyers for “all the guidance as well as the freedom that he gave me on my research.” 

Kirsten Hirneisen

Hirneisen, also a doctoral student in CANR, said that receiving the Benton Award is “a great honor. Past recipients have been wonderful students and great scientists and it's a wonderful feeling to be associated with them through this award.” 

Hirneisen’s area of research is microbial food safety and she said that she enjoys working in the field because it encompasses many different areas. “As a food safety microbiologist; I get to be involved in all these areas to control hazards from the field to fork.” 

Her doctoral research focuses on “the enteric viruses, including Hepatitis A Virus and human noroviruses, and their interactions with fresh produce in a field environment. The impacts of my research helps assess the risk of human pathogen contamination of produce and aids in the development of strategies to ensure a safe food supply.” 

Hirneisen said that her adviser Kali Kniel, associate professor of ANFS, has been “a wonderful mentor to me and a great role model.” 

Article by Adam Thomas

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