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USDA grant to help train college lab students
By Rod Santa Ana
Posted: 08/08/2003
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Twenty-six undergraduate biology students at The University of Texas-Pan American will soon have the unique opportunity of learning how to work in high-tech scientific laboratories, thanks to the efforts of a citrus scientist in the Lower Rio Grande Valley who has made it his mission to help local students into scientific studies and careers.

Since arriving here in 1997, Dr. Eliezer Louzada, a Brazilian-born molecular biologist at the Texas A&M-Kingsville Citrus Center at Weslaco, has landed three grants totalling almost $900,000 to train local students in how to perform the delicate techniques used in today's cutting-edge biotech laboratories.

Graduating students who have worked in Louzada's laboratory have been very successful in continuing their careers. Of the last three graduate students, one is pursuing his doctorate at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and two are technicians at Baylor College of Medicine, also in Houston.

Louzada's most recent grant to train students, for just over $298,000, comes from the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Hispanic Serving Institutions.

"The objective of this grant is to provide hands-on experience in laboratories at both UTPA and here at the Citrus Center to students in this highly Hispanic area where students may not have this opportunity otherwise," Louzada said.

In addition to paying for the costly lab supplies and equipment students will be using, proceeds of the grant will go toward a one-semester, paid internship for each of the 26 students who will work 19 to 30 hours per week, depending on their school schedules.

"They won't just be watching others do research and lab work," Louzada said, "they'll be doing the work themselves, mainly in gene isolation and gene expression analysis, which is some of the work we do as part of my research in improving citrus using biotechnological methods."

Louzada, who heads up the Citrus Center's breeding program, is himself a world renown scientist who's developed successful and pioneering methods of transferring genetic material between citrus varieties at the cellular level to improve fruit characteristics and quality.

Once selected, 17 of the students will be working in Louzada's lab, while nine will be working at UTPA under the direction of the co-project director, Dr. Michael Persans, a professor of molecular biology at UTPA's biology department.

Upon his arrival here from the University of Florida, Louzada was struck by the area's lack of qualified lab technicians to work in his laboratories and the lack of area students interested in scientific careers. He vowed to do something about it.

"The Hispanic population in this country is growing so fast that by 2030, a full quarter of the entire U.S. population will be Hispanic. Yet the education and income rates of Hispanics are very low. Science will be in big trouble soon if we can't look to our large Hispanic population to provide scientists," Louzada said.

Officials at USDA agree and have so far provided Louzada with three grants to recruit local students into science-based training and education.

The first grant of $263,000 funded a three-year effort to recruit and train 16 students from UT-Brownsville to work in his lab. A second grant from USDA successfully channeled most of those 18 undergraduate students into graduate scientific studies.

Dr. Jose Amador, director of the Texas A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, said, "Providing career and academic opportunities for local students is one of our top priorities and Dr. Louzada's program is an excellent example of the successes students here can achieve when given the opportunity."

No lab experience is required of the 26 students to be recruited, but students must be enrolled in any of the biology classes at UTPA. A resume, unofficial transcript and two letters of recommendation from UTPA professors should be mailed to Dr. Eliezer S. Louzada at the Texas A&M-Kingsville Citrus Center, 312 N. International Blvd., Weslaco, Tx. 78596.

For more information, contact Dr. Louzada at 956/968-2132, or e-mail e-louzada@tamu.edu or contact Dr. Michael Persans at 956/292-7323.