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UTPA awarded USDA funds for agricultural biotechnology program
By Melissa Vasquez
Posted: 05/20/2010
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The University of Texas-Pan American was one of 20 institutions across the country awarded a grant by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) program to continue to attract students to pursue careers in agricultural and food-science related fields.


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The USDA announced in April it renewed UTPA’s three-year $315,331 USDA Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) grant for a third time. UTPA began receiving the funding in fall 2009 to provide undergraduate internships and graduate student support to students in conjunction with the Texas A&M University-Kingsville Citrus Center Biotechnology Laboratory, in cooperation with Dr. Eliezer Louzada, associate professor.

“The primary focus of the grant is undergraduate student and graduate student training in the area of agricultural biotechnology,” said Dr. Michael Persans, UTPA Department of Biology associate professor and principal investigator of the grant. “The grant is also to improve plants to provide some sort of added benefit to people. Louzada is working in the Citrus Center on citrus crop improvement and I am working more in the area of phytoremediation.”

Persans said phytoremediation is the use of plants to extract pollutants from the environment.

“If you have pollutants in the soil like organic chemicals, heavy metals or inorganic chemicals such as too much salt, the plants take them up to the roots and bring them out of the soil and into the body of the plant through the roots and then to the leaves. Then you can just pluck the plants out of the soil and go and process them to clean up the toxic chemicals. What you are doing is taking the toxic chemicals from the environment and trying to gather them up in the plants, so the plant localizes them, and you can just remove the plant out of the environment,” Persans said.

Students in the program are required to work on their own research projects within the subject areas of citrus crop improvement or phytoremediation said Persans.

UTPA has participated in the grant program since 2003 when Persans and Louzada came together to work on the grant. Initially, Louzada served as the principal investigator, but handed the leadership role to Persans in 2009. The grant will run from 2009-2012.

Since its inception, the program has provided internships for approximately 60 students from UTPA and Texas A&M University-Kingsville, of which about 44 percent have gone on to pursue master’s and Ph.D. degrees.

The grant program provides students with financial assistance to be used for their tuition or living expenses during their undergraduate or graduate studies. In addition, funding is also provided for students to travel to conferences for professional development. Students are also given a free 10-week GRE study course, which would cost an individual nearly $1,000.

Funds will also be set aside for the purchasing of research supplies and scientific materials for the biology labs, and for the hosting of a conference as requested by USDA at UTPA for all 20 grant awardees, from universities in California, Texas, New Jersey, New Mexico and Puerto Rico, to come and present their scientific and educational outcomes of their respective grant programs.

Currently the program has met their student capacity for fall 2010, but Persans said more students will be needed in the future. Requirements for the program include being a full-time student majoring in biology; a 3.0 GPA or higher preferred; a written personal statement explaining why the student wants to do research; an academic transcript; and two letters of recommendation preferably from biology professors or professors familiar with the students work ethic and character.

The HSI Education grants program, now in its 13th year of funding, provides support to HSIs to provide educational programs that attract outstanding underrepresented students to pursue careers in agricultural and food science related fields, such as natural resources management, food and nutrition, microbiology, biotechnology and sustainable engineering.

Additionally, the grants help colleges and universities develop new curricula, expand the use of experiential learning and bolster student recruitment and retention. Some grants establish collaborations between two-year colleges, four-year institutions and high schools. They also support collaborations between HSIs and USDA agencies.

The program reported in April it awarded a total of $6 million to the 20 universities.

“Nearly one-quarter of the nation’s college-age population will be Hispanic by 2025, but too few Hispanic students are earning college and university degrees, especially in the fields of food and agriculture-related sciences,” said Roger Beachy, NIFA director. “Through these grants, our aim is to produce outstanding graduates who will be valuable, contributing members of the nations’ food and agricultural scientific and professional workforce.”

To learn more about the HSI Education grant program, contact Persans at 956/292-7323.