Student workers value jobs in research more after national competition

COLLEGE STATION — Anyone familiar with a university town knows that many restaurants and retail stores revolve around college student employees, who may be learning life-long lessons in customer service while paying for their college education but who don’t plan to stay in those businesses.

Patients in physicians’ clinics and hospitals, however, may not realize that their medical treatments also likely had a student worker preparing samples and replicating trials in the laboratories of professors who maintain research projects alongside of academics. These students also say the lab jobs give life-long lessons but in areas they will use as they continue in their chosen careers.

Dennis Vandenberge had been working in a lab at Texas A&M University for about two weeks when the lead professor told him he would be presenting a paper about his job at a national conference later that month.

VFIC students

Student workers at the Texa A&M University Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center for 2013 are (from the left, back row) Jose Perez, Michael Harris, Dennis Vandenberge, and (from the left, front row) Akshata Kulkarni, Natacha Villegas, Sabrina Myers, and Priyanka Chaudhary. (Texas A&M AgriLife Research photo by Kathleen Phillips)

Jazmina Urriola

Jazmina Urriola (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M AgriLife Communications)

Julie Rothe

Julie Rothe (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M AgriLife Communications)

Vandenberge, a junior biology major from Stephenville, teamed up with fellow student worker Natacha Villegas, a senior from Venezuela, and developed a poster to explain how the various colors of watermelon flesh contain different phytochemicals that may help prevent cardiovascular disease and prostate cancer.

Two weeks later, the pair shared the $1,250 prize money for second place at the North American Agricultural Biotechnology Council’s 25th annual conference held at Texas A&M in June.

The money is helpful to offset studies, they agreed, but being able to explain their role in research is invaluable for their future plans. Their jobs are in a lab at the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center at Texas A&M where researchers are studying the healthy phytochemicals in watermelons, and both plan to attend medical school after earning bachelor’s degrees.

“Having an opportunity to do something like presenting a scientific poster about the research we work on is hugely beneficial to students,” Vandenberge said. “I wanted this job so that I could be in research. It’s important for undergraduates being involved that way.”

Villegas said their work in the watermelon research has given them insights that will be helpful in medical school in a few years.

“It was good for us to prepare the poster for competition because we got a better idea of the larger picture for the entire project,” said Villegas.

For Sabrina Myers of Abilene, word from her boss that she was going to present at the biotechnology conference came while she was on her honeymoon. She had a couple of days to prepare after returning before the judging began.

“Student workers focus more on doing an experiment over and over, so it is nice to see the full picture of what research you are working on,” said Myers, a senior whose work involved producing strawberries under high tunnels near Lubbock last summer. “One of the people at the conference asked me about the economic benefit of an extended growing season, so that was a good question to help me focus on what the research means to consumers.”

“In most jobs, a boss just might say ‘get it done.’ But being asked to present information about the work you do gives a student more pride in what they are doing,” said junior Michael Harris of Corpus Christi, who also works at the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center, purifying compounds that go into other research projects. “It’s good for undergraduates to know what’s important and to have judges ask questions and see that they care about our work.”

For some students, the “job” is a work in progress toward an advanced degree. A master’s or doctoral student’s job for which they receive a stipend also yields results about which a thesis or dissertation is written in order to graduate. Presenting information at conferences helps them learn even more about their work, several students noted.

“I felt very proud presenting my work to a number of important members of the agri-biotech community in North America, including scientists and representatives from the private sector, government and academia. It was a great opportunity to get feedback on my research,” said Jazmina Urriola of Panama, a doctoral student who earned the $1,500 prize at the biotechnology conference for her poster on research to improve nitrogen use efficiency in sorghum.

Urriola, who will graduate in August, said preparing for the competition enabled her to think about her work in a more creative way in an effort to attract viewers who may not otherwise know about the methods or purpose of her work.

“Often research presentations are useful to encounter from the audience different perspectives about the experiments I’m doing and receive constructive feedback,” said Julie Rothe from Amarillo, who is working on a doctoral degree in plant breeding.

Rothe’s job ultimately could benefit hungry people thousands of miles away from her well-equipped lab at the university. She’s seeking the genes that can enable cowpea to tolerate a lack of phosphorus in the soil.

“The soils of West Africa are poor in phosphorus, which is a vital soil macronutrient, and fertilizer costs for the area are exceedingly high,” she said. “The purpose of my research is to start breeding work for the development of cowpea lines that grow well in low phosphorus soils, because cowpea is a staple crop of West Africa.”

Rothe, who also presented at the biotechnology council’s student session, already has identified a few cowpeas that may qualify for breeding into new varieties.

“I did receive useful input from others about my research at the conference,” said Rothe, who picked up the $1,000 third place prize for her poster at the session. “And I learned about the most recent advances in agricultural biotechnology and the challenges ahead as agricultural biotechnology becomes more widespread.”

Doctoral student Jose Perez of McAllen, who at one point in his life didn’t think he would be able to continue in higher education, earned the $750 fourth place award for his poster about bitter melon, an Asian fruit that he thinks may one day provide a healthy addition to American and Mexican diets.

“This sort of exposure can draw attention and open doors,” Perez said. “And that could be helpful, because I’m trying to learn more about the healthful components of the bitter melon and how to introduce it here. In the Rio Grande Valley, there is a high rate of diabetes, and this melon could help with that disease.”

Indian master’s student Akshata Kulkarni said she gained confidence from her experience fielding questions from judges about her poster at the conference. Her work involves developing a more efficient method for measuring potency in onions, and her response to judges’ questions earned the $500 fifth place.

Another advantage for students who present their work in scientific competitions is the ability to think about their projects in a variety of categories, according to Priyanka Chaudhary of India, a doctoral student who has been working on a project to understand how phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables are affected by harvest and post-harvest handling.

“I’ve presented in horticulture contests before, but this one pertained to the biotechnology angle of the work. That made it a little harder, but also interesting,” said Chaudhary, who plans to return to India after graduation to start a health food business.

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