University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the School for Earth, Environmental, and Marine Sciences ( <> )  aims to recruit outstanding, underrepresented students into a newly developed master's program in Agricultural, Environmental and Sustainability Sciences.  As part a USDA funded grant, we will provide two years of funding that covers tuition and a monthly stipend to students interested in advanced sciences related to sustainable agriculture and food systems, and are interested and qualified to conduct graduate research on one of the projects identified below.  As part of this program, students will be involved in opportunities to develop skills important in agricultural careers through engaged scholarship, and will work closely with faculty and community partners on the various projects.  

Successful candidates should possess a undergraduate degree in a related field relevant to the graduate research, excellent written and oral communication skills, can work in teams and in groups, and are expected to disseminate research in multiple venues. Interested applicants should send a single file containing (1) a statement that describes both research interests relevant to the projects below and career goals, (2) CV containing GPA and GRE scores and any relevant course work, and (3) contact information for three references to either Dr. Alex Racelis  alexis.racelis@utrgv <mailto:alexis.racelis@utrgv>   ,  or the faculty identified below.  The students are expected to start in the AESS program in Summer or Fall 2018.  Interested candidates should also visit the UTRGV Graduate School website for official application instructions and deadlines.    

(1) The cattle fever ticks (genus Boophilus) pose a threat to the American cattle industry because they vector a disease, bovine Babesiosis. Much is known of these blood-sucking ticks in relationship to the transmission of disease and their life-cycle on the animal host, which has informed an international effort to manage these pests through various modes. In collaboration with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service-Cattle Fever Tick Research Laboratory in Edinburg TX, the UTRGV Agroecology Lab ( <>     ) explores the ecology and management of this important agricultural pest, and is looking to fill two graduate research assistant positions.  One graduate student assistantship position will complement international research on classical biological control agents through the exploration of the potential of conservation biological control, or the use of native tick parasitoids to help with tick management in the region.  In collaboration with animal control municipal and county animal control, dog ticks could be collected throughout the region and dissected to determine percent parasitism, and held for emergence of adult wasps.  Wasp larvae could be sequenced using the same methods as  Santos et al. 2017, (Ticks and Tick-born Diseases), to determine the molecular phylogenetic relationship of local Ixodiphagous hookeri .  The second graduate assistantship position will explore the off-host stages of the tick. After completing development on the host, mature females dis-attach and drop to the ground. Preliminary observations indicate that the female seeks the nearest shelter, usually at the base of a plant, preferably in a root-mass or under plant detritus. In that shelter she will lay her eggs. The eggs hatch in a few weeks and the egressing larvae surmount a nearby plant where they await the opportunity to attach to a passing host, a behavior known as “questing." It is unknown if the larvae have a preference for certain plants or if they reject certain plants, or if they simply surmount any plant nearest to their egg mass. Preliminary research indicate an aversion to non-graminaceous plants but for this project we propose a systematic study including choice experiments with both adults and larvae focusing on common south Texas pasture plants.   Research will be conducted at the Cattle Fever Tick Research Laboratory in Edinburg, TX.  For more information, please contact Dr. Alex Racelis (   [log in to unmask]       <mailto:[log in to unmask]>) 

(2) Giant freshwater prawn (Macrobrachium rosenbergii) is a commercially important food species native to the Indo-Pacific that is widely cultivated in many countries. The popularity of farming Macrobrachium stems from its relatively broad environmental tolerances, its ability to be farmed in the same enclosures as other aquaculture species (such as tilapia), and its large size – individuals can exceed 12 inches in length and weigh over a pound. Its importance as a food source, particularly in developing tropical and subtropical areas, has been recognized by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, who provide free training and information on how to cultivate Macrobrachium. The climate of the Lower Rio Grande Valley makes it an excellent place to cultivate Macrobrachium at either a subsistence, small business, or commercial level. However, the nearest commercial Macrobrachium hatchery is located near Dallas, Texas ca. 500 miles away. This lack of a local hatchery is a significant impediment to developing sustainable Macrobrachium production operations in the Rio Grande Valley. Our goals are to (1) establish a sustainable Macrobrachium hatchery in the Rio Grande Valley capable of providing adequate larvae to local growers, and (2) develop aquaponic Macrobrachium production methods that minimize water and power usage and recycle excess nutrients via hydroponic biofilters that produce marketable fruits and vegetables. Advisor: Dr. Christopher Gabler.  For more information, please contact:  [log in to unmask]  <mailto:[log in to unmask]>
(3) The newly established Kariyat ( <> and Christoffersen ( <>) labs in the Department of Biology ( <> at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley are accepting applications for graduate research assistantships starting Summer/Fall 2018). The study systems for these two positions will be domesticated and non-domesticated species in the Rio Grande Valley, with a likely emphasis on cultivated Sorghum and the herbivore Corn leaf aphid. One position (Kariyat lab) will study the ecological effects and mechanisms underlying plant-herbivore interactions. The position will focus on using chemical ecology tools to understand the factors contributing to host location, feeding, development and dispersal of herbivores, and characterizing the physiological responses of host plants to herbivore feeding and their counter defenses. Techniques employed include collection and analyses of plant volatiles, electrical penetration graph, and electroantennogram. The second position (Christoffersen lab) will study the water relations and drought tolerance traits of the focal plant species. This position will employ a combination of lab-based assays of plant hydraulic traits of leaves, stems, and roots and test their utility in predicting field-based plant function during periods of prolonged water scarcity. Potential exists to develop and test numerical models of plant responses to drought for candidates with a strong quantitative background.

For details on techniques used in the Kariyat & Christoffersen labs, see <> or see Kariyat et al., 2017 (Proc. Roy. Soc B), Kariyat et al., 2017 (Biol. Letts) and <>. Additional molecular techniques and expertise will be provided in collaboration with scientists at the USDA-APHIS facility at Mission lab. Successful candidates will also be provided with opportunities to participate and contribute in additional projects such as assessing commonalities/differences in feeding behavior of other economically important sucking insects such as Asian Citrus Psyllid- in collaboration with Dr. Evan Braswell (USDA APHIS). For more information please contact Dr. Kariyat ([log in to unmask] <mailto:[log in to unmask]>)


      (4) The Kang Lab and the Pereira Lab are currently involved in research that explores the relationship of cover crops and tillage with soil health and on-farm productivity in the Rio Grande Valley.  We are looking for two graduate students to help support on-going field trials as part of the Subtropical Soil Health Initiative funded by the Conservation Innovation Grant Funded by the USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service.  In close partnership with the National Center for Appropriate Technology and local area farms, we will train graduate students to help determine the effects of various cover crop treatments and tillage practices on soil biology, soil chemistry, and soil physical structure.  Graduate student will help measure changes to soil using these three indicators, and explore mechanisms of how these soil health indicators are affected by the cover crop and tillage practices (no till, reduce till and/or conventional till). Students will have particular emphasis on either: (1) soil physical properties including bulk density, infiltration rate, and soil aggregate stability, (Kang) or (2) soil biology and microbial-mediated nutrient cycling (Pereiria).  In addition to students playing a key role in collecting field and laboratory measurements, we expect students to be closely involved with the communication of research outcomes through outreach and community engagement, and the translation of these research results to the practicality and profitability of organic farming in subtropical areas.  For more information please contact Dr. Kang (    [log in to unmask] <mailto:[log in to unmask]>) or Dr. Engil Pereira ([log in to unmask] <mailto:[log in to unmask]>)

(5) In collaboration with regional municipalities of McAllen and Edinburg TX, the Agroecology Lab ( <>  ) is looking for two graduate students to continue on-going research on the implication of urban forests on biodiversity as a driver of ecosystem health and the potential for conservation of flora and fauna that are key to regional ecotourism.  In one potential project, a graduate student will work closely with UTRGV faculty, urban foresters, and local urban ecologists to collect biodiversity data in 55 different neighborhoods in the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission Metropolitan statistical area to complement existing data sets on urban forest canopy coverage and certain biodiversity indicators.  This student is expected to effectively communicate these results to the regional city officials and to the Rio Grande Valley Tree Council to help improve local landscaping ordinances.  In another potential project, a graduate student will help organize a complete tree inventory on the UTRGV Edinburg Campus, following a survey conducted in 2014 (see  Cantu, J. 2015, MS Biology UTPA).  This student will work closely with the Edinburg Urban Forester and UTRGV Facilities Management to update the inventory, and as part of this research will use inventory data to estimate relevant ecosystem services (such as energy savings, stormwater mitigation, and pollutant sequestration) provided by urban trees.  The student will also help address the university campaign for reducing student hunger by organizing and amplifying efforts for an on-campus food forest. For more information, please contact Dr. Alex Racelis ( [log in to unmask]    <mailto:[log in to unmask]>) 

(6) In collaboration with the UTRGV Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Advancement ( <>), we are looking for a graduate student with strong interest in improving resilience of small and medium-sized family farms & beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmerer.  In particular, this student will research the impact and potential improvement of financial viability of agricultural operations through the incorporation of value-added processes (steps that add value to agricultural commodities through processing and marketing). This graduate student will be required to work in a team setting to help develop a template for growers in South Texas that are seeking USDA grant funds to improve the financial sustainability of their agricultural operations.  As part of their masters work, this graduate student will complete a complex feasibility study and a business plan that supports the development of a value-added agricultural venture, as well is expected to produce scholarship that contribute to a greater understanding of the role of financial sustainability plays in the resilience of small family farms in South Texas.  For more information, please contact Dr. Alex Racelis ( [log in to unmask]  <mailto:[log in to unmask]>) 

Julie Cotton, M.S.
Academic Specialist
Sustainable Agriculture & Food 

Michigan State University
1066 Bogue St., Room A264 
Plant and Soil Science Building
East Lansing, MI 48824

[log in to unmask]