USDA grant to fund UF undergraduate research and Extension fellowships

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Cassius Winchester grew up with a grandmother who cooked healthy meals for her family with produce from her home garden. These memories developed Winchester’s desire to work with plants, leading the Valencia College graduate to participate in a new undergraduate UF/IFAS research and Extension fellowship project offered through the University of Florida College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS).

Funding for these fellowships comes from a four-year, $281,453 interdisciplinary project led by the UF/IFAS microbiology and cell science department. The project is supported by the Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduate (REEU) Fellowships program, part of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s (AFRI) Education and Literacy Initiative of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, grant No. 2017-67032-26012.

The project aims to prepare the next generation of agricultural and life scientists to meet the challenges of the future. Through the grant, eight undergraduates, including Winchester, conduct one-on-one, faculty-mentored research for 10 weeks during the summer at UF/IFAS research and education centers throughout Florida. Student projects ranged from plant and animal health to food production, and included Extension activities. The department utilized its existing partnerships with Florida state colleges to promote the fellowship program.

“The unique piece about this grant is that we’re targeting students in the two- to four-year STEM pathway, specifically students receiving their AA degrees who have an interest in transferring to UF/CALS,” said Jennifer Drew, a UF/IFAS microbiology and cell science lecturer and principal investigator for the grant. “Two-year institutions are historically more diverse than a typical four-year program, and we want to broaden the participation of those students in our programs.”

Drew said the UF/IFAS microbiology and cell science department is addressing the critical shortfall in the STEM workforce by conducting research on STEM degrees and how to increase the number of STEM graduates in the workforce. Boosting the participation of women and minorities in the STEM fields is one method of closing the STEM gap, Drew said. The department aims to match the diversity of Florida’s population in STEM baccalaureate majors through programs such as the summer fellowships, she said.

Winchester conducted integrated pest management research with Lance Osborne, an entomology professor at the UF/IFAS Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka. Winchester was able to observe interactions between helpful and harmful insects with plants in a greenhouse setting. In addition, he worked with Osborne to disseminate environmentally friendly pest control practices to home gardeners.

“It surprised me how learning about bugs ties directly to my interest in plants and provided me with a new angle of interest,” Winchester said.

Winchester begins his first semester with UF/CALS this fall. The summer fellowship has shown him the multitude of opportunities available to plant science majors.

“I can’t stress enough how much this summer fellowship was worth it,” Winchester said. “It’s beyond satisfying. I highly encourage others to apply for it next year. You have everything to gain from it – new things to learn and new challenges to overcome.”

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The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) administers the degree programs of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). The mission of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is to deliver unsurpassed educational programs that prepare students to address the world’s critical challenges related to agriculture, food systems, human wellbeing, natural resources and sustainable communities. Visit the CALS website at cals.ufl.edu, and follow CALS on social media platforms at @ufcals.

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