MOUNT VERNON — With the slice of a razor blade, Pinki Devi removes the top of a watermelon seedling and clips it to a squash stem. Beside her, Abigail Attavar comments that the new plant looks like Frankenstein’s monster.

Devi and Attavar, both from India, are graduate students in the Department of Horticulture at the Washington State University Mount Vernon Research Center.

The two say they were drawn to the program to learn new agriculture research and techniques such as vegetable grafting, which joins parts from two separate plants. The technique can be used to increase disease resistance and improve crop production.

Watermelon seedlings are grafted onto disease-resistance squash rootstock to help improve the health of watermelon crops, benefiting growers in Washington, Devi said.

Carol Miles, professor of vegetable horticulture at WSU, said international students bring their knowledge and background to the university.

“It gives us the opportunity to learn not just from an agricultural research perspective, but also culturally,” she said. “I think the more we know and understand each other, the easier it is to get along.”

Devi is in her final year pursuing her doctorate and is combining horticulture and biotechnology. She said she admires the relationship between the research center and growers.

“In my state (in India) there are a lot of gaps,” she said. “People are still not open to certain new technologies.”

She said her goal is to return to Assam, the northeastern part of India where she is from, to help translate information to farmers.

One of her research projects involves restoring medicinal plants in wild areas.

“I see myself as an educated woman in agriculture,” Devi said.

Attavar completed her master’s degree this spring and has a job lined up at a seed company in Skagit County.

Eventually, she said she would like to return to Karnataka, a state in southern India, where her family runs a seed business.

“(This program) was a really good way for me to expose myself to different crops,” she said. “This region has a lot of agriculture. It’s really different than India.”

While vegetable grafting is nothing new — the technique dates back to 500 A.D. — there’s still work to be done to make it more accessible to growers, Attavar said.

When it comes to Skagit County, Attavar and Devi said they found the area welcoming.

“Especially here at the research center, people have treated us as family, even though we’re so far away from home,” Attavar said.

The public can learn more about research projects at the the annual WSU Mount Vernon Field Day and Research Showcase on July 11.

— An earlier version of this story incorrectly described vegetable grafting. Watermelon seedlings are grafted onto disease-resistant squash root stock, not the other way around.

— Reporter Jacqueline Allison: jallison@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2145, Twitter: @Jacqueline_SVH

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