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UTPA students join USDA scientists to study invasive Rio Grande basin weed
Posted: 11/19/2011
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For biology major Andromeda Marez, the opportunity to work with government scientists to study an invasive, ecologically damaging weed impacting South Texas is a once in a lifetime experience.

It not only gives her immediate actual experience in the processes involved in research and presenting her work but also the chance to make a long term impact, Marez said.

Dr. John A. Goolsby, research entomologist at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, is pictured showing UTPA students Jesse Sainz and Andromeda Marez, a healthy week-old Arundo donax (giant reed) plant. The students will work as interns with the USDA-ARS on the Arundo donax biocontrol project designed to manage the invasive damaging weed. The internship program was made possible by a $245,000 grant received by UTPA from the USDA.

"It is a chance for a student to help maybe make a change and have an impact on the Valley. Our data may be used to help preserve the environment here," said the senior who plans to attend graduate school and pursue a career in research.

Marez is one of six students at The University of Texas-Pan American chosen to participate this year as interns in a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-Agricultural Research Service (ARS) biocontrol project of the Arundo donax, a giant reed that is a threat to riparian areas, like the Rio Grande River basin. The giant reed is a major competitor for water resources critical for agricultural and municipal users in the United States and Mexico. Its massive stands also fuel fires, cause loss of biodiversity, erosion, damage to bridges, increased chemical and mechanical control costs and reduce visibility for law enforcement officials.

Through the paid internship, Marez will gain real life experience in scientific methods involved in research and be able to explore the career possibilities in agricultural sciences, where there is a need for more for graduates, particularly Hispanics, to enter the field.

The project was made possible by a $245,000 USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Hispanic Serving Institutions grant awarded recently to Dr. Rod Summy, entomologist and professor of biology at UT Pan American. Developers and co-directors of the Arundo donax biocontrol project are Dr. John A. Goolsby and Dr. Patrick Moran, both research entomologists with the USDA-ARS currently located at the Kika de la Garza Subtropical Research Center in Weslaco. Goolsby, Moran and Summy, along with ARS technicians, will oversee the student interns' research.

Through participation in the project, Summy said each student will develop a research plan and learn how to collect and analyze data, be able to attend scientific meetings, and make formal poster presentations of their research findings. Six interns will be hired each year of the two-year grant.

"In the process, they are making professional contacts which will help them get jobs and many, who have little or no interest in agriculture at this point, may develop an interest," Summy said. "One of the goals of this grant is to develop an interest in agricultural and food sciences by university students."

Summy said the aging of current scientists in many federal agencies, including the USDA, will lead to a "brain drain" and the need is great to replace those in the process of retiring. Summy said the challenge that this particular project addresses is also a significant one.

"One of the main constraints to the continued economic growth in the Rio Grande Valley is going to be water availability," he said. "The problem with this plant is that it takes out an enormous amount of water out of the Rio Grande, which could go to municipalities or agriculture. The giant reed also displaces native plants in this riparian habitat. And when those get displaced so do the native, unique species that bring tourists here."

Currently the project has determined four insects from the native range of the giant reed that feed on the plant which are being used to help control its growth and spread. The students will help examine the reed's natural enemies and how they respond to the plant and the plant's response to the biocontrol agents being used.

Goolsby said the majority of the 15-member staff at the research center are Pan Am students or graduates and the grant includes the hiring of mentoring technicians who work closely with the interns.

"We have had a great experience with people from UTPA," he said.

Crystal Salinas, a UTPA alumna who earned her master's in biology in 2009, has worked with the ARS previously and in her new role as research engineering/scientist associate under the grant will mentor the interns. She said the research that they will do will help the ARS figure out how to better rear the biocontrol organisms and how they will act out in the field.

"Right now we are working with a fly that is getting hard to rear so we may have them test different techniques of rearing like changing some of its environmental qualities such as temperature, humidity, or things like that," she said.

Goolsby said controlling invasive, water-using weeds is one of the worldwide hot topics on how to conserve water.

The Rio Nadadores in Cuatro CiƩnegas, Coahuila, Mexico (pictured) no longer flows due to severe Arundo infestation. There are an estimated more than 30,000 hectares of the Arundo in the Rio Grande Basin. (Picture courtesy of the USDA-ARS)

"We're being proactive as scientists. We are saying what is the major issue of our region and it is water. And if the climate changes, then we could be in even worse shape," Goolsby said.

Intern Jesse Sainz, a junior pre-med major, said he wants to take advantage of any research opportunity available and that this particular project gave him a chance to also give back to the community.

In his investigation on the Arundo donax prior to applying for the internship, Sainz learned of two towns in Mexico that had to entirely relocate due to the giant reed depleting their water resources. One of the rivers that no longer flows due to the Arundo infestation also resulted in the extinction of a desert fish that lived in that part of the waterway.

"We are doing a real critical project for the United States and Mexico," Sainz said. "The most important thing about this is to be able to help others through science."

Sainz also sees the project as a great way to interest more Hispanics in pursuing careers in the sciences.

"We need to get those numbers up for both boys and girls," he said.

Having diversity in the workplace is important because it brings different life experiences and viewpoints necessary to be effective as scientists, Goolsby said, adding that there are a lot of employment opportunities in agriculture and not just with the USDA.

"There are jobs in the state government and private industry. This is such a big agricultural area in the Rio Grande Valley, so there is a lot of opportunity. This is a good thing to get into especially if you get your Ph.D.," he said.

For more information on the internship program or the project, contact Summy at krsummy@utpa.edu. To learn more about programs offered in the Department of Biology, go to their website.