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In the Department of Agricultural Education and Communication (AEC) at the University of Florida, there is an option for undergraduate students to boost their academic rigor and enhance their program of study by completing an undergraduate research. While this is an optional component only offered to students who meet initial academic performance requirements, students often rise to the challenge to receive honors in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, work closely with a faculty member of their choice, and give them an experience similar to that of a research assistant.
“This option gives our students a ‘behind the curtain’ kind of look to help them understand what a research assistant or graduate student does,” said Dr. Andrew Thoron, Undergraduate Research Coordinator for AEC.
This year, six undergraduate students in the department stepped up to the plate to complete a research project.
They started in the fall by meeting with faculty members to identify an adviser they wanted to work with and selecting a research topic. The students’ may choose to do a research thesis or project, based on their own interests.
Then, they spend much of their time in the fall and spring semesters conducting their research, analyzing their data and writing their thesis. Ultimately, the students have a chance to be published in a peer reviewed journal.
In a unique situation, AEC has an all-female team of undergraduate researchers and advisers that chose this option for this year. Meet them and find out more about their specific research projects below!
Advised by Dr. Lisa Lundy, Amara Salmon will be graduating from AEC this spring with her Bachelor of Science, specializing in communication and leadership development. She chose to research Miami-Dade and Orange County Extension offices’ social media use, identifying barriers for extension agents when using social media and recommending best practices to implement in the near future.
Salmon selected her topic based on her own experiences.
“Being from a big city, I grew up never thinking about farms or where my food has come from,” Salmon said. “When I started showing livestock in high school, agriculture became a passion of mine.”
Salmon hopes that her research can help close a gap that is apparent between consumers and the agriculture industry by helping extension offices effectively communicate via social media.
“Working with Dr. Lundy was a great experience, as I expected,” Salmon said. “She would cheer me on when I felt like I couldn’t finish a section or provide me with resources I wasn’t able to find.”
Following graduation, Salmon plans to return home to Miami and begin her career full-time.
Hallie Odell will be graduating from the department this summer with her Bachelor of Science degree, specializing in communication and leadership development. Advised by Dr. Katie Stofer, Odell chose to study the ways people in Florida learn about and interact with agriculture throughout their lifetimes.
To do this, Odell identified themes that were apparent in transcripts from a focus group where participants were asked about their knowledge of agriculture and how they gained that knowledge.
“I had actually been looking at these transcripts while working on another project,” Odell said. “I found the focus group’s responses really interesting. My own experiences with agriculture were what brought me to UF and to AEC, so I know that people’s experiences can be really important.”
Odell hopes that her research will help researchers, extension agents and educators better understand the experiences that shape their audiences’ perceptions of agriculture, and she is working on designing a survey tool that will help other researchers learn more about their participants’ agriculture backgrounds.
“Working with Dr. Stofer was a great introduction to what it’s like to conduct research,” Odell said. “In addition to learning about qualitative research and paper writing, I was able to meet with other students who working on similar project and discuss what it looks like to succeed as a research professional. Dr. Stofer helped foster an environment where we were encouraged to be confident and independent researchers.”
Under the advisement of Dr. Cecilia “CC” Suarez, Jane Thomas completed her undergraduate research and will be graduating with her Bachelor of Science from AEC this summer, specializing in communication and leadership development.
“As a woman that has held management positions for many years and watching the growth of women at UF, I was curious as to how UF compared with other higher education institutions today,” Thomas said.
She selected a study that utilized national studies of women in leadership positions in higher education institutions and compared them to the University of Florida in its active support of women in leadership roles.
Thomas gathered qualitative data from in-person interviews of 5-7 women in past or present leadership roles at UF. Her goal was to examine the experience and perception of women leaders, provide additional understanding of the current environment and offer ideas for encouraging women to attain leadership roles.
Thomas hopes “this study will continue the conversation of gender equity within the higher education community and the University of Florida. It has the potential to provide additional tools to higher education professionals to increase the percentage of women in leadership positions.”
Each student selects the adviser they plan to work with, and Thomas chose Dr. Suarez after taking her online class last summer.
“Working with Dr. Suarez has really helped me focus on my research topic,” Thomas said. “She is very good-natured and patient and has helped guide me through this process.”
Thomas has worked at the University of Florida in the Information Technology area for over 30 years. She believes her degree in agricultural education and communication will help her in the second part of her career.
Raychel Thomas will be graduating this spring with her bachelor’s degree in AEC, specializing in communication and leadership development. She completed her undergraduate research under the advisement of Dr. Joy Rumble, focusing on Floridian’s perceptions of the safety of genetically modified (GM) food and the messaging that relates to it.
“I noticed there was a lot of questionability about GM food safety in the general public,” said Thomas. “I wanted to further explore these perceptions and ways to more effectively present information regarding GM food safety to consumers in Florida.”
Her research project utilized questions from the Food Panel survey conducted by the Center for Public Issues Education (PIE Center) at the University of Florida over the course of three years. The quested gauged respondents’ feelings on the safety of GM food, questions that identified demographic and psychographic characteristics and their communication preferences regarding information on GM food safety.
Thomas hopes that her research can provide the agricultural industry and scientific community with information on consumer perceptions of GM food safety as well as identify a target audience that will most benefit from GM food safety information.
Thomas is grateful that she chose Rumble as her adviser through this process.
“[Rumble] is an incredible researcher,” Thomas said. “I very much value and appreciate her continuous and unwavering support, flexibility and willingness to answer all my questions.”
Following graduation, Thomas will be pursuing her J.D. degree at the Levin C. College of Law at the University of Florida.
This spring, Cynthia Gutierrez will graduate with her bachelor’s degree in AEC, specializing in communication and leadership development. She chose to explore the experiences of ethnic and racial minority undergraduate students within the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences under the advisement of Dr. CC Suarez.
Gutierrez utilized more of a qualitative study, using a demographic survey and conducting individual interviews with participants. She credits Suarez for helping her sort out many thoughts and ideas to help bring the research to life.
“I hope my research can help shed light on perspectives that minorities feel in science-related fields, such as agriculture,” Gutierrez said. “Understanding the different experiences could potentially better structure organizations and class materials for minorities pursuing a future in agriculture.
For Gutierrez, completing this research as an undergraduate student was more than a box to check in order to graduate with honors, it helped her discover her niche in agriculture.
“As students, especially Gators, I feel we work past expectations to achieve our goals, surpass our limitations and any doubts,” Gutierrez said. “Completing this research project proved, to me, that I can continue my higher education into graduate school, that this more than shows for my past four years at the university, that I am more than worthy to be a part of the Gator Nation, to be a Florida Gator.”
Following graduation, Gutierrez plans to be working with Valagro-USA as a Trade Marketing Communications Associate.
Heather Ryan will be graduating this spring with her bachelor’s degree from AEC, specializing in communication and leadership development. Advised by Dr. Nicole Stedman, Ryan’s research addressed the need for an Institute of National Fellowships & Scholarships on the University of Florida campus.
Ryan chose this topic based on her interests from opportunities like the Harry S. Truman Scholarship, a competitive federal scholarship awarded to students based on demonstrated leadership potential and commitment to public service.
“I felt unprepared and uneducated about all of the opportunities available and the ideas of graduate work through fellowships,” Ryan said. “I also came to understand how a majority of my peers were completely left in the dark about many of these opportunities despite their incredible potential for graduate school.”
Ryan utilized several methods of personal interviews, data surveys and needs assessments in order to conduct her research. She also analyzed the history of the University of Florida in respect to national scholarships and fellowships awarded over the past 15 years. This was then compared to other peer public institutions.
The impact Ryan sees her research having could help propel UF toward a position as a Top Five Public Institution. She sees her research as a case study and proposal for UF to create an institute on campus that will help students with similar interests as Ryan in the future.
For Ryan, choosing this topic came with guidance from adviser Nicole Stedman, who assured her that the most thorough research comes from a place of personal motivation.
“Every time I meet with [Stedman],” Ryan said, “I leave more inspired and in awe of what an effective woman in leadership and academia can look like.”
Following graduation, Ryan plans to either pursue graduate school or take a gap-year from her education and complete ministry training at Greenhouse Church in Gainesville.