National conference at UTPA celebrates science education and research
Posted: 06/21/2012
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Performing research on plant species that might improve the environment helped Yessica Cerino realize the possibilities for a career that that could also fulfill her longtime interest in environmental conservation.

Pictured during the opening day of the USDA Hispanic-Serving Institutions Education Grant Program's 2012 conference for project directors held recently at UTPA are left to right Dr. Walter Díaz, dean of UTPA's College of Social and Behavioral Sciences; Dr. John Trant, dean of UTPA's College of Science and Mathematics; Robert S. Nelsen, UTPA president; conference keynote speakers Dr. Jo Ann Canales, professor and associate graduate dean at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, and Norman Barr, molecular biologist, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; and Dr. Michael Persans, UTPA associate professor of biology and the conference coordinator.
"I never thought research was ever anything I could possibly do," said the graduate student who earned her bachelor's degree in biology in 2011 at The University of Texas-Pan American.

She has been working with Dr. Michael Persans, associate professor of biology, on phytoremediation research, particularly on a plant species that possesses the ability to hyperaccumulate heavy metals. Cerino now plans to earn a Ph.D. in biology with hopes of working in a federal agency like the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) which helped fund her research internship.

Cerino was among many students from across the nation and Puerto Rico who presented their research posters at the 2012 Project Director's Conference of the USDA's Hispanic-Serving Institutions Education Grant Program overseen by the agency's National Institute for Food and Agriculture. The three-day conference, which had nearly 200 faculty and student participants, was held recently at the University.

The education grant program supports the ability of higher education programs to attract, retain and graduate outstanding students who will become the next generation of researchers and workforce professionals in the fields of food, agriculture, nutrition and natural resources.

During the conference, attendees were able to network and share information on their research and education programs supported by the grants as well as hear from keynote speakers on the significance of their research and how to bring meaningful experiential learning opportunities to HSI students.

"The meeting gave the faculty the opportunity to showcase and compare their teaching and research methods in the field of agriculture, human nutrition and education with each other. The benefits to students included career networking, getting experience with public presentations and providing opportunities for interfacing with other underrepresented students and faculty from other Hispanic Serving Institutions," said Persans, who served as the conference's coordinator.

At the conference's opening, participants were greeted by UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen and Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics Dr. John Trant. Nelsen said the USDA was playing an important role in creating the next generation of leaders.

"You are here because of the USDA and federal money to help you do amazing things. But it is more than that, you are not only touching individuals but you are touching communities," Nelsen said. "We are grateful that you care and invest in us."

Roxanna Ramos, a senior biology major at UTPA, is pictured explaining her research during the poster presentations to Dr. Raul A. Ruiz, USDA geneticist, who served as a poster competition judge at the conference.
At UTPA, there are three current grants funded by this program that provide research training, mentoring and internships to underrepresented students to foster their growth from undergraduate to doctoral level studies and prepare them for careers in agricultural sciences. The research projects they work on primarily focus on the protection and enhancement of agricultural and natural resources in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. One funded research project, for example, addresses the biological control of the giant reed, an exotic invasive grass that has caused extensive damage in areas of the Rio Grande Basin.

Highlighting the conference were two keynote addresses from Dr. Jo Ann Canales, professor and associate graduate dean at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, and Norman Barr, a molecular biologist with the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, who talked about strategies to enhance science curricula and education and the importance of research in addressing local to global quality of life issues.

Nearly 75 poster presentations on research and education were also given at the conference by the faculty researchers and students. The conference also included focus group workshops on agricultural careers, a tour of UTPA's Coastal Studies Lab and a banquet dinner where poster presentation winners were announced.

Winners of the poster presentations that went on in the hallways of the Science Building during the conference were for education: 1st, Adisbelks Alvarez, Florida International University; 2nd, Aaron Pulido, University of Texas-San Antonio; and 3rd, Cesar Garcia, California State University at San Bernardino. In research, the winners were: 1st, Ramon Vicencio, UTPA; 2nd, Martin Hernendez, UTPA; and 3rd, Cecilia Lott, Texas A&M University-Kingsville.

Persans said the grant program helps ease the financial concerns of students who might want to pursue research and other careers that are possible with the USDA, by offering direct wage and scholarship compensation to the students. It also exposes them to career possibilities that can impact the quality of life not only locally but nationwide, he said.

"The USDA has career opportunities not only in agriculture but as outreach specialists and in health care, nutrition counseling, food safety and security, obesity and diabetes research and in more than 200 more occupations," Persans said.

Learn more about the USDA Hispanic-Serving Institutions Education Grant Program here. Learn more about the programs offered at the College of Science and Mathematics at their website.