Agri Leader

Florida A&M student wins recognition for innovative research

A Florida A&M University (FAMU) student has earned public recognition as the first young scientist to clone a key gene from muscadine grapes.

During a six-month research project at FAMU’s Center for Viticulture and Small Fruit Research, Hall successfully cloned the Flavanone 3’ Hydroxylase (F3’H) gene.

That accomplishment is commercially significant because it will help expedite efforts to exploit the unique nutritional benefits of muscadine grapes, which have one of the highest antioxidant levels among fruits.

Hall’s breakthrough work will aid in the production of nutraceuticals that will be made available to consumers in the future. She is also in the process of writing a manuscript on her findings.

Hall’s work is the latest benchmark in an ongoing project at FAMU led by Violeta M. Tsolova, a professor of viticulture and developmental biology in the Center for Viticulture Science and Small Fruit Research, which has pioneered efforts to gain commercial advantage from the health benefits of the popular grapes.

Hall, who will be a senior at FAMU this fall, has also become one of the first scientists to deposit sequences for the cloned F3’H gene in the National Center for Biotechnology Information Genebank.

Anthony Ananga, an FAMU research associate and food biotechnologist, said Hall’s accomplishments are especially significant because she completed Ph.D. or professional level research while only an undergraduate student.

“I am very impressed with her,” said Ananga, one of Hall’s research advisors. “She is

exceptional and among the best research students I have ever worked with. She is a trailblazer and a very determined and promising researcher.”

Hall’s research talents earned her a summer internship in Athens, Ga., with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Services.

She is also a National USDA 1890 Scholar, which provides her with a scholarship, research-related internships and an opportunity to work with the USDA upon graduation.

Earlier this year, Hall was named among the top two researchers during the 2014 Ecology, Environmental and Earth Science Poster Competition at the Emerging National Researchers Conference (ENR) in Washington, D.C. The conference was sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Hall knew nothing about muscadine grapes when she transferred to FAMU in the spring of 2012 after a brief stint at Indian River State College in south Florida. Before that, she attended Louisiana Tech.

“I didn’t even know Florida A&M had a viticulture center,” she said. “It just kind of fell into my lap once I met Dr. Tsolova. And once she told me about it, the topic just intrigued me. She has been a pioneer in this work.”

Taking Tsolova’s biotechnology course “opened up a whole new world to me,” Hall said. “What happened was we just started talking about it.”

Then she learned about an undergraduate research program that ultimately earned her a scholarship and the privilege of working with Tsolova in her lab beginning in spring of last year.

It took about six months to complete her breakthrough research project.

“It was my first time being in that kind of a lab or touching those kinds of instruments,” Hall said. “So I was just learning and enjoying the ride. The whole thing really came as a surprise to me.”

Hall stressed that her ego has not been inflated by her achievement.

“I feel like I’m just a little person who played a role in a very big project,” she said. “But I do realize that somebody had to be the person on the forefront for the sake of the research, which could change the world for the better. So if I have to be that person, I’m happy to be that person.”

Her message to younger students is a simple one. “I just try to keep in mind that the knowledge you receive from being in a lab and being able to make mistakes is very valuable,” she said. “And it’s also a discovery process. So I just wanted to soak it all in and learn. And it’s learning from your mistakes that is the most valuable part of it.”

She also takes pride in playing a part in helping to evolve the food supply through innovative research.

Tsolova said Hall deserves credit for enhancing the efforts of her own muscadine grape research that ultimately will bring economic benefits to Florida.

After graduation from FAMU next year, Hall plans to attend graduate school to study food microbiology and food safety.