July 12, 2013

Grad student to wrestle weeds in collegiate contest

Courtney Stokes
Stokes

Poison hemlock, buffalobur and prickly lettuce, prepare to meet your match!

The Cornell University Weed Team will send graduate student Courtney Stokes to two days of brutal, mind-bending, grueling agronomic combat at the 2013 North Central and Northeastern Collegiate Weed competition at the Monsanto Learning Center in Monmouth, Ill., July 24-25.

Hosted by the North Central Weed Science Society and the Northeastern Weed Science Society, some of the teams attending sound like an autumnal Saturday scoreboard: Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue, Kansas State, and the Universities of Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky. The University of Guelph, near Toronto, one of Canada’s top universities, will participate as well.

For Stokes, this is her fourth weed contest. Currently a Cornell doctoral student in the field of soil and crop science from Leesburg, Fla., she competed twice for the University of Florida graduate team and once for Cornell. Stokes took second place in individual scoring last year at the Rutgers University contest.

Originally a public relations major at Florida, Stokes enrolled in an agronomy class called Biological Invaders to meet a science requirement. “I didn’t even know what agronomy or weed science was,” she said. But she fell in love with the class and changed her major.

She’ll encounter such weeds as waterhemp, which is problematic in mid- America, or the agronomic weed called kochia. Stokes is looking forward to seeing devil’s claw, buffalobur and Russian thistle, saying: “Since the contest takes place in the Midwest, I’ll be seeing weeds I’ve never seen before.”

These weed competitions are more than mere contests: Think science-oriented major league baseball tryouts. Judges will be university faculty and staff, and industry professionals from DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta, DowAgroSciences, BASF and Bayer, for example.

“Faculty are looking to recruit grad students. Industry professionals are trying to spot potential employees. It’s a lot of networking,” said Antonio DiTomasso, Cornell associate professor of soils and crop science, the team’s faculty adviser.

Components of the contest include solving real-life farmer problems, weed and herbicide identification, and sprayer calibration. For example, judges take on farmer or homeowner roles and present sticky problems, such as why a weed herbicide killed an entire crop or a front lawn. The contestant’s challenge is to solve the cause of the problem and provide recommendations to remedy it.

“You have to think on your feet, under immense pressure,” Stokes says. “These ‘farmers or homeowners’ act angry, and they scream at you. These are real situations, much like what happens on farms, or in an urban or suburban setting.”

The students have to identify weeds as seeds, seedlings, mature weeds or plant parts. Also, they get tested on common names and scientific names. Spelling counts.

Judges serve up major point totals for sprayer calculations and proper use of spraying equipment, ensuring efficacy for herbicide applications.

Former Cornell weed Olympian John Orlowski, B.S. ’10, M.S. ’12, now a University of Kentucky doctoral student, also will participate this year. Stokes said that she and Orlowski “talk smack” about the other person’s team.

Said Stokes: “There’s a lot on the line. It’s a year worth of bragging rights.”