Chemistry student earns USDA fellowship for research with possible implications on food safety

July 12, 2023
Photo of Sydney Schoellhorn and Liz Skellam
Sydney Schoellhorn (left) is researching a fungal endophyte that grows naturally on corn in the lab of Elizabeth Skellam (right), an assistant professor of chemistry.


UNT chemistry doctoral student Sydney Schoellhorn (’19, 21 M.S.) learned an important lesson when it comes to research funding: rejections are inevitable even for the most experienced of scholars, but it only takes one yes to make a big difference — and make UNT history.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded Schoellhorn a $180,000 pre-doctoral fellowship through its National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“I was starting to get discouraged, but I kept reminding myself how competitive this field is,” says Schoellhorn, who previously earned degrees in chemistry and data analytics from UNT. “Then, I got this email from the USDA saying I was funded. It was a game changer.”

Schoellhorn is the first UNT student to earn this type of USDA fellowship, which focuses on agricultural-based research.

“This fellowship is well-deserved and a testament to Sydney’s hard work and dedication,” says Elizabeth Skellam, an assistant professor of chemistry who also is serving as Schoellhorn’s major professor. “Sydney is constantly on the lookout for new opportunities and real-life applications. I am proud of her and looking forward to her future discoveries.”

The USDA award will support the next three years of Schoellhorn’s investigation of a fungal endophyte that grows naturally on corn, one of the world’s most produced crops and the top exported crop from the U.S.

The endophyte, known as Sarocladium zeae, appears to shield corn from other fungal pathogens that secrete mycotoxins. Knowing more about its functionality and protection of corn from mold and disease could have huge implications for food safety and preventing food spoilage.

“There’s still so much we don’t know about Sarocladium zeae, and before it’s used as a biocontrol agent in the future, we need to understand more about how the endophyte functions and make sure there would be no unwanted impacts on the environment if it were used on crops,” Schoellhorn says.

Schoellhorn will study the behavior of the fungus independent of its corn host and get a better understanding of its genetic blueprint.

“Fungi and plants have a complicated relationship and the approach that Sydney is taking simplifies many of the unknowns. I hope we can adapt her methods to study many other fungi that interact with important agricultural products,” says Skellam, whose lab explores natural products for applications in the pharmaceutical, agrochemical, food and cosmetic industries as part of UNT’s BioDiscovery Institute.

As a researcher in Skellam’s lab, Schoellhorn has learned to embrace the indeterminate nature of research and that failure is all part of the process.

“There’s a sense of community here that I really value,” Schoellhorn says. “Dr. Skellam always encourages us to look toward the future and see how what you are doing can have an impact. She also identifies what strengths we have and knows what we need to grow as scientists and professionals.”

With funding from the fellowship, Schoellhorn will manage a budget for her research project and be able to participate in industry conferences to share results. She’ll also lead a group of student researchers to support her in the work including training a graduate level student to further the research once Schoellhorn finishes her degree. It’s all valuable experience as she plans for a research career possibly in a national laboratory.

“It’s not necessarily the topic that drives me, but rather the challenge of finding a solution and trying to help people with the work I do,” Schoellhorn says. “I hope to continue that sense of curiosity and discovery in my future career.”