Oklahoma scientist named 2012 Star in Agriscience finalist by National FFA Organization

INDIANAPOLIS (September, 2012/National FFA Organization) - Taylor Runyan says growing up on a ranch in southern Oklahoma spurred her interest in agriculture. Feeding animals, maintaining the grounds and keeping good records instilled valuable work ethics, she said. Now Runyan is one of four FFA members selected as national finalists for one of the National FFA Organization’s highest awards, thanks to her work in understanding the benefits of lycopene.

The American Star in Agriscience is one of the four awards that represent the highest honor FFA can bestow upon its members. Runyan, from the Atoka High School FFA Chapter in Atoka, Okla., will join the other three finalists during the final day of October’s 85th National FFA Convention & Expo in Indianapolis in hopes of being named the organization’s top member in the area of agriscience.

But before that moment, Runyan will detail her projects and accomplishments to a panel of judges representing many areas of agriculture. Her story is sure to impress, thanks to the time that she’s spent perfecting her skills in the agriscience field.

Encouraged by her mother – a middle school science teacher – Runyan started competing in science fairs in seventh and eighth grade. Her school didn’t have an FFA chapter until she become a freshman, a time that opened several new options for Runyan’s desire to learn and compete in science fairs that included the Tulsa Fair and the Oklahoma FFA State Convention.

Her level of research ramped up considerably after meeting Dr. Penny Perkins, a researcher for the United States Department of Agriculture at the Wes Watkins Research Center in Lane, Okla. Together, they developed and planned what would become a four-year project for Runyan, centered on tomatoes both grown and sold in her community. In the first year, she sought to establish which tomato variety – grape, cherry, Roma or beefsteak – maintained the greatest content of lycopene. The experimental process taught Runyan to use powerful blenders while collecting and managing data from devices like the Hunter Scan Electro spectrometer and the colorimeter.

When Dr. Perkins became a professor in North Carolina during Runyan’s sophomore year, she started work with a plant geneticist on a project that subjected 96 varieties of tomatoes to testing for color, sweetness and lycopene content. A massive rainstorm near the end of the growing season, however, wiped out several plants.

Undeterred, Runyan took on her most intriguing bit of research in her junior year. After testing many different types of stored tomato specimens, Runyan proved that lycopene found in tomatoes has the capability to block ultraviolet rays. In research aided by Dr. Theresa Golden, a microbiologist pathologist at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Runyan tested synthetic lycopene in a topical cream on lung cancer cell cultures to determine if lycopene worked as a sunblock against ultraviolet light. Her findings were impressive, as they indicated the lycopene cream worked better than SPF-50 sunscreen in blocking ultraviolet radiation. It is perhaps the first step in finding if either dietary intake of lycopene or a topical treatment with lycopene could work as effective protection of human skin from the dangers of ultraviolet light.

Runyan is now a student at Murray State College in Tishomingo, Okla., with plans to finish her degree in biological sciences with a minor in agricultural engineering at Oklahoma State University. She graduated fourth in her class at Atoka High School with a 4.06 GPA, where her FFA chapter advisors are Bailey Platt, Bart Harper and Michelle Harper.

The American Star Awards represent the best of the best among thousands of American FFA Degree recipients. Finalists for the awards have mastered skills in production, finance, management and/or research in one of four areas: Star Farmer, Star in Agribusiness, Star in Agricultural Placement and Star in Agriscience. Each state FFA association recommends a finalist in each area, and the National FFA Organization selects the four national finalists in each area. The 16 total finalists receive a $2,000 award for their efforts in the national program.

The American FFA Degree recognition programs, such as the American Star Awards, are co-sponsored by Alltech Inc.; Case IH; Elanco; Farm Credit; Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont Business; and Syngenta as a special project of the National FFA Foundation.