Mary Gates Endowment For Students

Unlocking the power of biofertilizer for sustainable agriculture

Faculty PI:

Mari Winkler, Ph.D.

Immediate Mentor/Supervisor:

Korena Mafune, Ph.D.

Project or Start-Up Company Name:

Unlocking the power of biofertilizer for sustainable agriculture

Lab/Project Website:

Work Location:

Benjamin Hall Interdisciplinary Building and Biology Greenhouse

Work Hours (include recurring team meetings, special events, etc.):

The scheduled hours for this internship are flexible with ~40% occurring in greenhouse, ~40% in the lab, and ~20% remote analysis. Weekly meetings the Winkler Lab team are in person on Wednesday from 2-3pm. The intern will also attend a one-hour weekly check-in 

Overall Program Goal:

The overall aim of this research project is to create a highly functional, drought resistant biofertilizer by harnessing the power of beneficial soil bacteria, mutualistic fungi, and polymer science. Today, a large portion of society depends on synthetic fertilizers for food production. Unfortunately, the production, sourcing, and application of these fertilizers comes at a high societal, economical, and environmental costs. We are quickly surpassing the safe operating zone for synthetic fertilizer application, because often times these fertilizers are over-applied and are not taken up by crops efficiently. This results in ground water contamination and surface water eutrophication. Additionally, excessive fertilizer application is one of the leading causes of N2O emissions, a greenhouse has ~300x stronger than CO2. Therefore, alternative practices are crucial for a sustainable future. 

The biotechnology that we have invented could be a game-changer in the biofertilizer sector, as it aims to harness the tripartite interactions among fungi, bacteria, and crops to alleviate or even remove the need for synthetic fertilizers while enhancing crop yield, and decreasing water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, we are in early stages of research and design, and pilot studies are demonstrating that is has high potential. We are currently scaling up to larger plant growth studies while exploring commercialization and spin-out potentials.

Intern Project Description and Responsibilities:

The intern will work closely with the team to help produce and apply the biofertilizer of focus. There will be controlled model systems in the lab that allow for exploratory based questions on organismal compatibility and plant nutrient uptake, and there will be a large scale greenhouse study that focuses on the application and impact of the biofertilizer when it is applied to crops such as wheat, barley, potato, and corn. The intern will be responsible for working closely with the project leads, in which they will receive mentorship in research techniques, analytical approaches, and commercialization efforts. Duties will include monitoring and maintaining plant experiments in the greenhouse, which includes general plant care and plant growth measurements; and helping maintain microbes to produce the biofertilizer, which includes basic microscopy, chemistry, and microbiology techniques in the lab. Additionally, there may also be opportunities to take gas measurements, measure soil/water nutrients, and/or prepare samples for molecular analyses, and learn about the methods used to analyze various types of data.


Ideally, we are looking for a student that is majoring in microbiology, ecology, or environmental horticulture. Although we are not limiting this opportunity to a specific major, we do seek a candidate who is eager to learn and is passionate about soil health, fungi, bacteria, climate change, and innovating solutions for a sustainable future. Students who have experience working in a greenhouse or nursery, microbiology/mycology labs (e.g., maintaining bacterial cultures or isolating fungal spores under the microscope), soil labs, or in an agricultural setting would be a great addition to our current team. Additionally, preference may be given to candidates that have experience in data entry/processing (e.g., Excel, R, Python).

Level of Independence:

This position is fairly structured and the student will be supervised by a postdoctoral scientist, with weekly check-ins with the lab PI. At the start of the internship, the student will go through lab and greenhouse safety training, learn the methodology for plant growth measurements and plant care, and be introduced to lab procedures used to create and apply our biofertilizer. Though we do have specific goals to meet during this time, we encourage the student to brainstorm and share ideas with the team, that could potentially lead to an additional research inquiry in our lab and greenhouse studies. Throughout the project, the student will also learn about our business plan and commercialization goals. 

Learning Opportunities:

  • They will gain knowledge on environmental sustainability, soil ecology, and microbiology.
  • They will learn gain experience in conducting applied science by designing a hands-on experiment, taking associated measurements, and processing and interpreting data.
  • They will gain experience in presenting scientific data to a team, and become familiar with early-stage commercialization efforts with the potential to continue research.