Center for Subtropical Studies conference fosters collaboration to address environmental issues
By Gail Fagan, Public Affairs Representative
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Posted: 01/31/2012
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Working together to tackle the issues threatening the environment of the South Texas border region was the focus of the first Conference in Subtropical Biology held recently at The University of Texas-Pan American.

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Pictured at the first conference on subtropical biology hosted by UTPA's Center for Subtropical Studies are left to right Dr. Larry McKinney, executive director, Harte Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, Texas A&M University; Dr. Hudson DeYoe, UTPA professor of biology and director of the Center for Subtropical Studies; Dr. Arturo Mora-Olivo, professor, researcher and secretary scholar, Institute of Applied Ecology, Autonomous University of Tamaulipas in Mexico; Carlos Rubinstein, commissioner, Texas Commission of Environmental Quality; and Dr. Brian Fredensborg, UTPA assistant professor of biology and conference coordinator. The one day conference attracted more than 100 attendees to share current research, network and develop collaborations to help address environmental issues in the Lower Rio Grande Valley including northern Mexico.
More than 100 researchers, federal and state agency officials and students participated in the conference that provided a chance to network, share information on current research on both sides of the border and develop relationships and possible collaborations on research and funding opportunities.

The conference was sponsored by UTPA's Center for Subtropical Studies, a multidisciplinary research component of the College of Science and Mathematics, which includes nearly 20 UTPA faculty researchers as well as representatives from the University of Texas at Brownsville, Texas State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Initiated in 2001, the center supports basic and applied research, education and community service focusing on the environmental concerns of the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV). UTPA graduate and undergraduate students, in particular, participate in the research of center members.

Dr. Brian Fredensborg, assistant professor of biology at UTPA and the conference's chief organizer, said the major environmental issues the LRGV faces cannot be addressed by just one researcher or one country.

"We (the center) believe as researchers in this region that we need to come together, share basic science and also address larger environmental issues. We need to strengthen our talking together, collaborating together and building new ways of attracting funding," he said. "We are also happy to have colleges from Mexico here at the conference because many of the issues we have do not respect national borders, so it requires us to work together."

In his welcome, Dr. Hudson DeYoe, professor of biology and the center's director, called attention to a proposed list of key environmental concerns of the LRGV including water quantity and quality; air pollution, introduced exotic species, habitat fragmentation, loss and degradation; infrastructure issues, such as water drainage and sewer collection; littering, dumping and improper waste disposal; unsustainable use of natural resources; and global climate change.

"I'd like to see a series of white papers produced through the center on the facts and fallacies of most of these issues," he said.

The conference featured three keynote speakers - Carlos Rubinstein (BS, '82), Texas Commission on Environmental Quality commissioner; Dr. Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi; and Dr. Arturo Mora-Olivo, professor and researcher at the Institute of Applied Ecology of the Autonomous University of Tamaulipas (UAT) in Mexico, where he is also a secretario académico (secretary scholar).

More than 30 oral presentations and 25 poster presentations were also given by faculty researchers and graduate and undergraduate students on topics addressing pest and disease management, marine science, terrestrial and aquatic ecology and conservation.

Rubinstein described legislation of the 82nd Legislative Session impacting the TCEQ enforcement capabilities and its efforts to respond to the severe drought conditions in the state, describing it as "like none we have ever seen before." He predicted water quantity as well as quality will continue to be challenges in Texas.

A Valley native and former Rio Grande Watermaster, Rubinstein said he is committed to helping the center by incorporating its concerns into TCEQ's border initiative and sharing TCEQ's knowledge on those issues with its researchers.

"I am going to try and create a link - I think that is what you are trying to do here today - you are trying to make a link from all the people here in the Valley who have knowledge and to collect that knowledge and to be the go to place and we want to help you to do that," he said.

McKinney described initiatives undertaken by the Harte Research Institute, where he leads an interdisciplinary team that integrates science, policy and socio-economic expertise to help assure an economically and environmentally sustainable Gulf of Mexico. He talked about maintaining the balance between the Gulf as one of the nation's largest producer of oil and gas as well as seafood and its unique habitat and biodiversity.

"If you are in the U.S. and you drive a car, heat or cool your home, .... or eat this type of seafood, you have a stake in the future of the Gulf of Mexico," he said. "The Gulf of Mexico takes a huge environmental risk so people can have these things. The issues in the Gulf are not just important regionally but they are important to the entire country."

He said his institute has almost 100 people working on these issues and half of them are students.

"We need students - master's students, doctoral students - coming out of universities like Pan American to look at the issues we are facing and decide they want to take up the cause. We have fellowships and all sorts of things to support those students," he said. "This year we received from the federal government a grant to support doctoral and master's students from underserved populations, which includes Hispanics, to work on the issues we are talking about."

Mora-Olivo, whose research at UAT's institute has focused on taxonomy, ecology and the conservation of vascular plants, indicated "there is still time to rescue the biophysical diversity of the Rio Grande Valley" and echoed the need for Texas and Mexico, Tamaulipas in particular, to work together in better understanding, conserving and managing the natural resources of the region.

"Binational and interagency collaboration in research is emerging as an important goal to achieve for the common good in this subtropical region of interest to both Mexico and the United States of America. The results of joint efforts will surely influence public policies of governmental institutions of both countries in both the short and long term," he said.

DeYoe said the center hopes to have another meeting this year of environmental organizations to discuss the issues and work toward coordination of activities and resources as well as further develop collaborations and partnerships. His future goals for the center include environmental planning on a large scale Valleywide.

"I'd like to see the center as a hub for that," DeYoe said. "What I'm looking forward to with the center is not where we have been but where we are going."

For more information, go to the Center for Subtropical Studies website.