New Faculty Research Spotlight
“Our program, called 3eX-Ag, identifies and addresses two national education problems: ethnic disparity in postsecondary degree recipients and too few qualified graduates to fill requisite positions in the agriculture workforce.”
A native Texan, I graduated from Texas A&M University (TAMU) with my B.S. and M.S. in Animal Science and then pursued my Ph.D. in Human Nutrition at Louisiana State University. After graduation, I took a brief hiatus from academia and braved the cold of Syracuse, NY, to work for a private-sector animal feed manufacturer. I’ve been back in Texas since August 2019 when I began at TXST as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Agricultural Sciences.
I was drawn to TXST largely because of the exciting growth the university is currently experiencing…the river didn’t hurt, either. While prepping for my interview, I reviewed the 2017-2023 University Plan and realized there was a strong investment in elevating TXST from an R2 to an R1 institution. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to contribute to these efforts and experience the dedication of so many come to fruition.
The student demographics also attracted me to TXST. We are a Hispanic-Serving Institution and approximately half our students are first-gen. As a first-gen student myself, I often found the college landscape overwhelming to navigate as an undergraduate. I am blessed with a supportive family, but without having personal context for what I was experiencing, their support only went so far. I was fortunate to connect with a fantastic mentor, Dr. Tryon Wickersham, when I was a junior; his (past and continued) guidance has shaped my professional career, and I am passionate about “paying it forward” by serving as a mentor for TXST students.
ABOUT THE 3eX-Ag PROGRAM
Along with my Co-PIs, Dr. Ryan Anderson (TXST) and Dr. Wickersham (TAMU), I was pleased to recently be awarded a $275,000 grant from the USDA HSI Education Grants Program. This funding mechanism is geared towards advancing the quality of education for underrepresented groups (e.g., minorities, first-gen) in food, agriculture, natural resources, and human sciences.
Our program, called 3eX-Ag, identifies and addresses two national education problems: ethnic disparity in postsecondary degree recipients and too few qualified graduates to fill requisite positions in the agriculture workforce. Our program addresses these problems through the development of curriculum that involves experiential learning, placement of students in extension positions with the agricultural workforce, and integration of students in a research laboratory.
With over 50% minority student enrollment, TXST serves an important population in a critical time. Although our nation is currently experiencing large population growth for minorities (especially Hispanics), the number of degree recipients at the post-secondary level does not reflect this demographic shift. This ethnic disparity is evident at the bachelor’s level but especially exacerbated for advanced degrees. Thus, 3eX-Ag is prioritized for minority students, and we hope that participation will increase graduation rates and matriculation into an M.S. or Ph.D. program. Ultimately, the grant supports 32 underrepresented students in their pursuit of a B.S. or M.S. degree in agricultural sciences at TXST.
My overarching discipline is agriculture. As I tell my students, it’s a great time to graduate with a degree in agriculture – the USDA 2015-2020 Employment Outlook Report projects an annual hiring deficit of 22,500 agriculture positions. Further, the report estimates 40% of agriculture positions will be filled by underqualified candidates. These projections point to a pressing need to generate a steady stream of qualified graduates prepared to enter the agriculture workforce. Cue the spotlight for 3eX-Ag.
The program equips students with practical and professional skills that shape them into more well-rounded candidates for careers in their discipline after graduation.
The ultimate goal of 3eX-Ag is to develop an educational model that can be adapted and/or adopted by other postsecondary institutions to advance the quality of education in food, agriculture, natural resources, or human sciences. This advancement should position underrepresented students for success in their academic and professional careers. With guidance from our Independent Evaluator, Dr. Manuel Piña, Jr., we have developed a comprehensive evaluation plan that enables us to assess the 3eX-Ag program in meeting our above-stated goal. We are excited to gather and publish these evaluation data with ambitions for widespread program adoption. Cumulatively, there is potential for the identified national education problems to be addressed to a profound extent.
ABOUT COMING FULL CIRCLE & MY RESEARCH
The 3eX-Ag grant provides two M.S. students with assistantships and allows them to conduct their thesis research in collaboration with TAMU – specifically, in the laboratory of my personal mentor, Dr. Wickersham.
This collaborative relationship with Dr. Wickersham is especially fulfilling and “full circle” for both of us. Barely 11 years ago, I was a nervous, lost undergraduate in his office…now here we are, winning grants together. I am grateful for this relationship as my TXST laboratory is currently under construction (an undertaking that has been delayed by COVID-19). Meanwhile, I am designing studies, convincing TXST students that College Station isn’t so bad and that they should move there for a few months, and generating data that Dr. Wickersham and I are mutually interested in.
This past summer, we tested this arrangement with funding from the TXST Research Enhancement Program – a TXST undergraduate, Emma Kathcart, conducted research in the very same barn and laboratory I was trained in as an undergraduate and master’s student. Her work will be published as an Honors thesis later this semester. Not to steal Emma’s thunder, but I am excited to share this work with you, so… (cue scientist voice)…
Our global population is expanding and demands high-quality protein. If projections are realized, there will be historic growth in food demand by 2050, requiring increased agricultural production that places pressure on already overexploited natural resources. The livestock industry is often criticized for utilizing food fit for human consumption (e.g., corn and soy) as livestock feed. Further, conventional feedstuffs used in livestock production require significant natural resource inputs (e.g., water, agricultural land). Thus, our priority should be on identifying novel feedstuffs that dually increase the sustainability of livestock production and meet global food demands.
We believe insects may serve this need. Humans in the Western world are averse to consuming insects, indicating there will not be competition between their fate as feed versus food. Insects have high protein content and efficiently convert nutrients into an edible product. Their production also has a lower environmental footprint than that of some conventional feed/food crops. Further, the commercial insect rearing sector is currently experiencing significant expansion.
Among edible insect species, we feel Black Soldier Fly Larvae (BSFL) have the most potential to be integrated in livestock production as a feedstuff. They have been researched in poultry and fish diets but have not been evaluated in cattle (until now!). This is warranted as cattle have a unique digestive system that allows them to utilize BSFL more thoroughly than monogastrics (e.g., poultry, fish) do. Further, food from cattle (beef, milk) are nutrient-dense sources of high-quality protein.
Emma’s study this summer was the first known investigation into BSFL as a feedstuff for cattle. She supplemented cattle consuming hay with one of three treatments: none, BSFL, or a conventional feedstuff. She then assessed treatment effect on forage intake and in vivo digestibility. Spoiler alert… BSFL works. Her data will be published later this year in the Journal of Animal Science and presented at the TXST Undergraduate Research Conference in Spring 2021.
3eX-Ag allows us to further evaluate BSFL as a feedstuff in livestock production. The first 3eX-Ag student will be conducting research at TAMU in Summer 2021 – stay tuned for what’s to come!