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UF/IFAS CALS student earns national research grant for work to reduce invasive species

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – A University of Florida student has been chosen as one of nine undergraduate students to receive a research grant from the Weed Science Society of America (WSSA).

Current UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) senior Rachel Watson was awarded the $2,000 grant to continue her research on a potential biological control agent, psyllid Calophya latiforceps, which could be used to suppress the invasive Brazilian Pepper-tree. The tree species occupies an estimated 700,000 acres of land in Florida alone.

Watson’s research on the psyllid took place at the UF/IFAS Indian River Research and Education Center in Ft. Pierce, Florida. UF/IFAS professor James Cuda has served as the sponsor of Watson’s research. Watson also received guidance from Patricia Prade, a CALS doctoral student studying entomology and nematology.

According to Prade, Watson has a knack for research and has been influential in the success of this project.

“Rachel is an organized, driven and hardworking student,” Prade said. “She is always open to learn new techniques, help others, adjust her ideas and bring new ideas to our research. Having her as a student was a mutualistic experience. I was able to help her with the knowledge I have acquired over the years, and she provided feedback that helped me improve my mentoring skills.”

As an undergraduate student, Watson had never written a grant proposal or created a budget for a project like this.

“Writing this grant is something that will help me professionally,” Watson said. “Whether it is graduate school, a research position or even an education position, having this grant proposal under my belt will be very beneficial for me.”

Growing up, Watson was convinced that science was not for her. With her mother as a biology teacher and her father as a civil engineer, she was determined to branch out from the STEM field. However, a curiosity and appreciation for the outdoors instilled in her by her father and three older brothers led Watson to look into science majors that would satisfy this interest.

Watson began looking for science degree opportunities in CALS and stumbled upon the entomology and nematology major. She was immediately interested.

Even as a freshman at UF, Watson was interested in volunteering as a research assistant. Through the entomology and nematology club and UF/IFAS associate professor Rebecca Baldwin, Watson was introduced to an opportunity to volunteer in Cuda’s lab. Three weeks into her freshman year, Watson began a position as a lab technician, which helped develop her love for research.

Through the UF/IFAS summer research internship program, Watson worked as a field research assistant in the Panamanian rainforest at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) studying the Heliconia bug. This experience provided Watson with a better understanding of field, research and laboratory skills.

In the summer of 2017, Watson took on a new research opportunity assisting with a study on the biological control of Hydrilla, an invasive aquatic plant known to cause significant environmental and economic harm in Florida. Through this research experience with UF/IFAS medical and veterinary entomology assistant research scientist Emma Weeks, Watson realized her interests in research and educating others about invasive species and biological control solutions. Watson presented research findings at the Southeastern Branch Conference of the Entomological Society of America.

Watson believes that CALS has played a fundamental part in providing her with the opportunities to further her education through research and her readiness for a future career in biological control.

“I think CALS has given me tons of opportunities,” Watson said. “Being in entomology and nematology has provided me with a second home. It’s just about having all these different people in CALS who have helped me further my career, individuals who want to see me succeed. It’s nice knowing that I have people supporting me and watching me succeed. If I need help, they are right there.”

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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. The college has received more total (national and regional combined) USDA teaching awards than any other institution. Visit the CALS website at cals.ufl.edu, and follow CALS on social media platforms at @ufcals.

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