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WSU‑PNNL Distinguished Graduate Research Program provides real‑world experience

Closeup of Katherine Naasko
Katherine Naasko

Katherine Naasko’s interest in how climate affects soil led her to move from Michigan out West to join the graduate program in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Washington State University.

“I do not regret moving across the country as I have been gifted a tremendous amount of support,” Naasko said. When the opportunity of the WSU-Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) Distinguished Graduate Research Program (DGRP) presented itself to Naasko, she knew it was the next step in her education.

The DGRP provides students with the opportunity to work with both a WSU and a PNNL advisor on their graduate dissertation committee.

“The DGRP is a wonderful opportunity to work with specialized researchers and make connections with people who are passionate about education,” said Naasko. “Having an advisor at both WSU and PNNL creates an environment of collaboration from the beginning.”

Naasko accepted the offer to be a part of the DGRP to combine her knowledge of soil carbon cycling with soil microbiome analyses. More specifically, she wanted to learn the ropes of soil biology with respect to multi-omics, a rapidly developing field in soil microbiology and microbial ecology.

Naasko spent the first half of her graduate program primarily studying with Haiying Tao, assistant professor of soil fertility and residue management in the WSU Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, on how climate and management in Palouse winter wheat production systems affect soil erosion losses and soil health indicators of soil acidification and soil organic carbon and nitrogen pools.

Through the program, Naasko has worked on a PNNL project as a collaborator to sample soil from a WSU-managed field site and analyze the samples at both WSU and PNNL labs. Additionally, she has attended seminars and meetings with other researchers in her division to make connections, while learning about advanced technologies and research at PNNL.

Currently at PNNL, Naasko is working with Janet Jansson, chief scientist for biology in the Biological Sciences Division and laboratory fellow at PNNL, and other collaborators in the PNNL Soil Microbiome Science Focus Area. The focus of this research is to examine the effects of irrigation-controlled moisture regimes on soil microbial community structure, function, and multi-omic response to drought stress reflected in soil moisture retention, soil organic carbon cycling, and stabilization.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Naasko started at PNNL in June. She admits that life in the laboratory looks a little different this year, but through the crisis, her WSU and PNNL advisors have helped her navigate research.

“I took comfort in knowing I had both of their support and I took pride in my research that much more,” Naasko said.

She points out that having advisors at both WSU and PNNL provides access to a breadth of knowledge, resources, and connections that help with professional development and communication skills.

Following her graduation from WSU and the DGRP, Naasko aspires to work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service in soil conservation, and has dreams of one day working at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as a geochemist. The DGRP has given her national laboratory experience at PNNL that will assist her in achieving these goals.

“If you have a WSU advisor and a PNNL advisor who are willing to co-contribute to your learning and doctorate pathway, and a personal passion for your field of study – go for it,” said Naasko.

The DGRP recently announced its call for applications for its fifth student cohort. DGRP students complete their coursework and preliminary exam at a WSU campus. Students then transfer to PNNL’s Tri-Cities campus once they achieve All But Dissertation (ABD) status. The application process is undertaken by interested advisors at WSU and PNNL who submit a joint DGRP application online. The priority deadline for DGRP applications is January 15, 2021.

For more information and guidelines, visit

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