Healthy vegetable, fruit research draws students to agricultural studies that pay off

March 8, 2012

Writer: Kathleen Phillips, 979-845-2872, ka-phillips@tamu.edu

COLLEGE STATION – On her computer at a community college in Dallas, Monica Piñarte searched the Internet to find information about the connection between cancer prevention and the consumption of fruits and vegetables.

As a boy in Spring, Rock Demaris set his sights on becoming a chemical engineer. Laura Masor loved to garden, and as a young girl in Sharpstown was curious about how different plant varieties came to market.

Laura Masor, doctoral student, Texas A&M University. (Texas AgriLife Research photo by Kathleen Phillips)

Laura Masor, doctoral student, Texas A&M University. (Texas AgriLife Research photo by Kathleen Phillips)

Ram Uckoo was studying irrigation systems in Kingsville when he took a course on citrus and found out about helpful phytochemicals in foods.

Krandhi Chebrolu had a desk job in Amarillo analyzing rainfall data on a computer.

           With varied backgrounds and interests, these five – and several more — now are students doing hands-on research at the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center at Texas A&M University, where administrators say graduates from the unique multi-discipline environment are landing prime jobs.

Dr. Bhimu Patil

Dr. Bhimu Patil, director, Texas A&M University Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center. (Texas AgriLife Research photo by Kathleen Phillips)

“I can say that about 95 percent of the students who’ve been trained at our center and respective faculty labs in various departments have jobs now,” said Dr. Bhimu Patil, director, noting that more than 47 graduate students and 45 undergraduate students have worked on the center’s research since 2005.

But what has changed and made more recent graduates even more marketable, Patil said, is the center’s approach of requiring students to experience at least two of the four core units: bioactive molecules, phytochemical and nutritional analysis, plant biotechnology and biological activity.

“With faculty from horticulture, nutrition, plant physiology, food sciences and economics, we are able to train the students so that they will not only get a job, but they will be successful,” Patil said.

That’s what Dr. Sara Simpkins McLin of Universal City believes as well. She graduated cum laude in December 2006 with a bachelor’s in biomedical science at Texas A&M, then stayed at the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center as a full-time researcher for another year before entering dental school.

“The training and the experiences from my time at the VFIC gave me the confidence to dive into research in a wide variety of fields,” Simpkins said. “I owe them for shaping my knowledge and drive for investigation.”

For most of the graduates, it was a combination of working with seasoned scientists and opportunities for hands-on experience that made the difference.

Justin Butcher, who now is a vegetable breeder for Emerald Seed Co. in El Centro, Calif., recalls when researcher Kevin Crosby took him to a cantaloupe field in West Texas when he was a new student.

“When we arrived, the farmer had just irrigated the field, so the furrows were filled with water,” Butcher remembered. “Dr. Crosby looked at me and said, ‘Well, just look out for rattlesnakes.’ At the time, I did not know if he was joking or serious, but the two of us took our shoes and socks off and proceeded to look at the cantaloupe.

“At that moment, I learned that a plant breeder has to be flexible and willing to deal with whatever environmental conditions might come your way,” Butcher said.

Hands-on training still impresses current students working and learning in the lab, according to chemical engineer major Demaris.

Rock Demaris, chemical engineer major, Texas A&M University

Rock Demaris, chemical engineer major, Texas A&M University. (Texas AgriLife Research photo by Kathleen Phillips)

“I’ve harvested watermelons and gone to greenhouses to see how pepper crossbreeding happens. That’s something that chemists probably never see. I’m thankful for this job because it gives me a perspective that I’d probably never get otherwise,” said Demaris, who plans to go into the oil and gas industry when he receives his bachelor’s in December.

“Most people don’t realize the power of natural compounds and that’s a lot of what we do here – find or synthesize natural compounds. That allows us to promote fruits and vegetables that are good for health, that can promote anticancer properties and that can promote healthy living.”

Graduate student Chebrolu believes the hands-on training will give him an edge on the job market as well.

“I’ve gotten experience in both the field and the lab, and that makes me better than a scientist who has been in only one or the other. I understand both,” said Chebrolu, who hopes for a job in the nutraceutical industry when he graduates this summer.

Students and graduates also noted that obtaining a degree in agriculture has yielded surprising opportunities.

Ram Uckoo, doctoral student, Texas A&M University. (Texas AgriLife Research photo by Kathleen Phillips)

Ram Uckoo, doctoral student, Texas A&M University. (Texas AgriLife Research photo by Kathleen Phillips)

“The phytochemicals class I took really motivated me,” Uckoo recalled of his decision to switch from his studies on irrigation. “I realized there was a lot more to agriculture. Beyond the production systems, there are the health aspects.”

Jose Perez of Edinburg recalls, “After just a few days working in Dr. Patil’s lab, I was in love with research and agriculture.”

Jose Perez of Edinburg

Jose Perez of Edinburg, chemist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agriculture Research Service. (Photo courtesy of Jose Perez)

Perez had been pursuing a degree in biology/pre-med and handling the family business after his father died.

“My grades were going down, so I had to focus on school,” Perez said. “I saw a poster about a summer research program involving the health-benefiting compounds at the Citrus Center in Weslaco.”

Perez applied for the program, though he had never been involved with research, because he thought it would look good on his medical school application.

That opportunity “changed my view of agriculture, my career goals and my life,” said Perez, who now is a chemist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agriculture Research Service and working on a doctoral degree.

“I love what I do. I love being in the lab. I love science. I love research. I love going to the field, driving a tractor and getting dirty. I love my career, and I have the VFIC to thank for that,” Perez said.

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