Brittany Mann, U of the Department of Agriculture System
Evelyn Madrigal, left, stands with her advisor Rupesh Kariat, associate professor of crop entomology at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station.

Evelyn Madrigal, an out-of-state honors student and junior, conducted her first research project this summer — an opportunity she may not have had as a student at her local university.

She peered into the microscope as she observed fall armyworm, a pest of soybeans and other plants, feeding on different strains of soybeans. I watched the caterpillar curl up in on itself with a stroke of a trichome, the finger-like protuberance the plant uses to defend against insects. She noticed another pause in her snacking after the trichomes filled her mouth.

Madrigal was one of six undergraduate students from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley to complete the first year of a summer internship program developed by Rupesh Kariat, associate professor of crop entomology at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station. The other students are Giovanni Hernandez, Marisol Sagastegui, Ashley Pacheco, Miranda de Leon Cantu and Emmanuel Flores.

“We don’t really get a lot of opportunities like this just because where we’re from is so small,” Madrigal said.

She surveyed fall armyworm encounters with soybean plant defenses to understand how the density of trichomes on soybean leaves protects the plant from fall armyworm feeding. This information can guide producers in choosing which type of soybean to grow.

This project was the first time Madrigal learned about the effects of FAW on soybean plants, and she said she feels like an expert now. The 10-week session ended in late July.

“Looking back, I did a lot, and I’m very happy with my results,” Madrigal said. “I’ve grown a lot, learned a lot of technology, and when I go home, they will definitely help me with the rest of my STEM classes.”

The program is designed to empower Hispanic student researchers by providing students from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley the opportunity to spend the summer on the University of Texas campus completing a research project. He received a $481,000 grant from the USDA Research and Extension Experiments for Undergraduates, or REEU, grant to support the program for at least three years.

Students collaborated with faculty mentors from the Entomology, Plant Pathology, and Poultry Science departments to complete an individual research project.

“I feel like as a group we did a good job,” Kiryat said. “We want to see if we can bring more than six students next year, and we definitely want to reapply for this scholarship when it expires.”

Kiryat said he also hopes to expand the program to include other faculty mentors who have expressed interest.

Kiryat conducts the research through the Experiment Station, the research arm of the UCLA Department of Agriculture. He also works with the Cooperative Extension Service and teaches courses through the Dale Bombers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences.

Madrigal is a senior biology student who aspires to become a veterinarian. She plans to apply to veterinary school or return to AU as a graduate student to study veterinary entomology. She collaborated with Kiryat and Jessica Ayala, a graduate assistant in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, on her research project.

Kryat is working with Bradley Christofferson, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, who is helping with the logistics of the program from Texas.

Summer of Science

Kiryat said the program benefited both the students and faculty members involved. For the students, this allowed them to explore a new place and experience attending an R1 rated university. R1 is the highest classification of the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education for research-focused institutions and represents 3.7% of public and private universities.

“The way the labs are here, and the kind of research we do, is completely new to them,” Kiryat said. “They were also able to understand how the research lab works with students, postdocs and others.

“They all had to do some interesting experiments. Although it was a short time, they also learned to write a little, analyze some data and create a poster. It’s no joke that you put together a poster in a very short time,” he said.

The students presented their posters in front of a group of faculty members at the end of the program. Kryat said he also hopes students will attend the South Texas Subtropical Agriculture and Ecology Association conference using grant funds allocated for that purpose.

Kiryat said the research studies the students conducted over the summer will lead to larger projects and more research presentations and peer-reviewed manuscripts.

Madrigal will return in October to present her poster at a conference hosted by the Bumpers College Honors Program.

Madrigal said she feels lucky to have attended the program because not everyone has that opportunity. Fear of leaving home, or family responsibilities, tends to keep students from wanting to expand, she said. As the oldest child in her family, she faced these thoughts of doubt but continued to apply because of the opportunities the program provided.

“When I heard about this program I said, ‘What a wonderful opportunity,’” she said. “And I really hope that after I finish this program, they will continue to do that.”

Enable interactions

Kiryat said that although the faculty interacted with many students from different schools, he did not believe they had the opportunity to interact with students at that stage of their careers for such a short and intense period.

“I think this was very interesting for the faculty,” Kryat said, based on the feedback he received from fellow mentors. “All of the students are from one specific region of the country, South Texas, so they bring a unique and interesting experience from UT Rio Grande Valley.”

Asia Codd, assistant professor of nematode science, was a collaborating faculty member this summer. She said seeing the students’ enthusiasm and growth throughout the summer brought her an abundance of joy and satisfaction.

“Seeing the determination and motivation of the REEU students to seize every moment of their short stay at the University of Arkansas was truly inspiring,” Codd said. “Feeling proud of their accomplishments during the final poster session made me confident that this program would be a huge success and leave a lasting impression on them.

“Undergraduate research opens doors to personal and professional growth, enabling students from disadvantaged backgrounds to excel academically and contribute meaningfully to their careers,” Codd said. “I’m really pleased to be part of this journey for this year’s REEU students, and I’m looking forward to next year’s programme.”

Ken Kurth, chair of the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, said the department is proud of its faculty-led research, and it is valuable to allow new scientists to join it.

“It is always exciting for us to welcome new faces to our department and campus,” Kurth said. “These students were an exceptional group of individuals.

“Dr. Kiryat and all of the college’s participating mentors ensured that the program ran smoothly and that the participants had an enjoyable and fulfilling experience,” Kurth said.

To learn more about Department of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: Follow us on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch. To learn more about the Department of Agriculture, visit Follow us on Twitter at @AgInArk.

About the Agriculture Division: The mission of the University of Arkansas Department of Agriculture is to strengthen agriculture, communities and families by linking reliable research with the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Department of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system. The Department of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty at five of the system’s campuses. The University of Arkansas Department of Agriculture offers all extension and research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity.

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