Learning to feed a growing population | News

Amanda Gerla

Food and agriculture scientists are playing a critical role in figuring out how we will feed and clothe the approximately 25% more people on the planet in 2050. This population increase, coupled with challenges like climate change and recent supply chain disruptions, is at the forefront of the brightest scientific minds right now to ensure our food supply remains plentiful, affordable and safe.

Virginia State University (VSU) demonstrated its leadership in developing the next generation of food and agriculture scientists, who will be tackling this problem, at the 20th annual Association of 1890 Research Directors, Inc. (ARD) Research Symposium April 2-5, 2022 in Atlanta. There, seven of their students took home research awards. The conference provides opportunities for scientists and students from the nation’s 19 historically Black land-grant universities to present research papers and posters on innovative and practical research findings in food and agricultural sciences. This year’s conference theme was “Pathways to Build Back Better.”

Cultivating minority and underrepresented youth for science-based careers is one of the primary goals of VSU’s College of Agriculture, which contains the land-grant university’s Agricultural Research Station, Cooperative Extension program and food and agri-science academic programs. Students who participated in the symposium worked alongside VSU College of Agriculture faculty members while conducting experiments, collecting data, analyzing results and preparing their presentations. In doing so, they received important hands-on experience in finding solutions to the challenges facing agriculture today.

Melissa Romero Flores, a VSU junior agriculture major and third-place oral presentation winner, said that meeting students from other 1890 land-grant institutions at the symposium, “made me feel very empowered to know that our generation has the capability to continue expanding and advancing agricultural sciences.”

First place oral presentation winner, Camron Jones, who is a VSU senior agriculture major, added, “What stood out the most to me from participating in the symposium is the amount of companies, corporations, and institutions that are going above and beyond to seek and find talent from HBCU schools.”

This year’s students who won an award include:

Camron Jones (undergraduate student) – first place winner for oral presentation on “Evaluation of Chemical, Physical and Hydraulic Properties of Varying Rates of Biochar-Vermiculite Mixtures and their Impact on Kale (Brassica Oleracea) Growth and Yield”

Aliah Jacobs (undergraduate student) – second place winner for oral presentation on “The Effect of Protein Contents on Physicochemical, Microstructural, Functional Properties of Hemp Heart Protein”

Alexandra Ovalle-Cisneros (graduate student) – third place winner for poster presentation on “Characterization of Green and Yellow papaya (Carica papaya) for Antioxidation and Glucose Uptake Stimulatory Activity in HepG2 Liver Cells”

Kevin Brown (undergraduate student) – third place winner for poster presentation on “Effect of Cooling Rate on Sperm Motion Characteristics of Ram Semen during Liquid Storage at Two Temperatures”

Melissa Romero Flores – third place winner for oral presentation on “Prevalence of the Escherichia Coli Virulence Genes in Fecal Samples of Pre-Weaned and Peri-Weaned Lambs”

Michael Ibarra-Bautista (undergraduate student) – third place winner for poster presentation on “Integrated Methods for Producing Pathogen-Free Ginger Seed Rhizomes”

Desmyn Owens – third place winner for poster presentation on “Chemical, Physical, and Hydraulic Properties of Selected Potting Mixes and their Effect on Growth and Yield of Kale (Brassica Oleracea)”

“The quality of the ARD Symposium presentations this year represent the hard work of our students and their faculty advisors and resulted in the largest number of student winners in recent memory,” said Dr. Wondi Mersie, VSU College of Agriculture Associate Dean and Director of Agricultural Research. “The work we do on campus to prepare students for the symposium is another example of how VSU is a leader in developing the next generation of minority leaders in STEM careers like agriculture and food science.”

A total of three graduate students and 26 undergraduate VSU students attended the symposium. Additionally, 25 VSU College of Agriculture administrators, faculty and staff participated in the symposium, many of whom served as judges or moderators.

Even those students who attended but did not win an award greatly benefited from the experience presenting their results, interacting with peers and learning from others in attendance. They also benefited by attending “soft-skill” and professional development workshops, like “Life After College: Where Do We Go from Here & How Do We Get There?” These workshops are designed to help students in their future workplaces, as well as to meet graduate school recruiters and representatives from federal agencies, both whom were exhibiting at the symposium. 

“The most meaningful thing to me was preparing my students to present their research at a national level, compete with peers, learn from this experience, and look for further education and research opportunities that different institutions offer,” said Dr. Rafat A. Siddiqui, a food chemistry and nutrition science researcher, who served as advisor to two of the VSU student participants. “One of my graduate students, Karter Causer, was awarded a Thomas Wyatt Turner Fellowship through the Cornell University Graduate School. Another graduate student of mine, Alexandra Ovalle-Cisneros, received second prize in a poster competition.”

ARD is the federation of the 19 autonomous 1890 land-grant universities that provides coordination of research initiatives among member 1890 institutions in cooperation with federal, state and private partners.

The association’s mission is to provide leadership to the institutions as they address food and agricultural research challenges facing the state, nation and world.

The ARD’s research agenda is broad and targets areas that address the needs of all people in society, particularly those underrepresented and oftentimes forgotten in the mix of issues confronting our society.


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