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2017-2018 USDA Fellows

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  • Gabriela is a first generation college student who earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Texas State University where she was a participant of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) - Food Safety and Agroterrorism Training: Educating our Future Workforce (FATE) program. In 2014, she did an internship at a USDA- Agricultural Research Services (ARS) lab in Edinburg, Tx. One of the main research areas she worked with was on Cattle Fever Ticks. The following year, Gabriela participated in another internship experience at the prestigious USDA national laboratory in Maryland. Both of these experiences, along with others, prepared her for a positive transition into graduate school.

    As a master’s student, Gabriela developed her thesis in collaboration with research at the USDA-ARS laboratory in Kerrville, TX. Her thesis focused on pyrethroid-resistance in horn flies, an economically important pest for cattle. These experiences have inspired Gabriela to pursue both a PhD in Veterinary Medicine and a DVM (Dual Degree). Currently, Gabriela is gaining experience in laboratory methodology at Texas State University, and veterinary experience volunteering at veterinary clinics and rehabilitation centers.

    Once she obtains her PhD, Gabriela hopes to employment with the USDA conducting research on the eradication, control, and prevention of vector-borne diseases. She is interested in conducting research that will benefit both humans and animals.

  • Ms. RIvera

    Yara, a native to Utuado, Puerto Rico, started her studies in Agronomy at University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez where she later developed an interest in plant pathology. Soon after completing her Bachelor’s degree in June 2013, Yara was accepted into the Plant Pathology Master’s program. The primary focus of her thesis was evaluating conventional and organic fungicides to manage foliar disease in yam. Upon completion of her thesis, Yara had the opportunity to present her work to the Caribbean Food Crop Society at Guadeloupe.

    Her expertise has steered her to North Carolina where she is currently working at the North Carolina State University as a Research Assistant in the Tobacco and Field Crops Laboratory. Yara’s responsibilities consist of working with a variety of tobacco diseases such as the black shank and nematodes and learn of methods to manage the disease. 

     Yara is passionate about educating local farmers on managing plant diseases using sustainable resources. Yara plans to further her research in disease management and pursue a doctoral degree in Plant Pathology.

  • Gabriela is a first-generation college student who has earned a bachelor’s degree from Texas State University where she was a participant of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) - Food Safety and Agroterrorism Training: Educating our Future Workforce (FATE) program. Throughout Gabriela’s undergraduate career, she experienced many learning opportunities through internships, programs, and projects. In 2014, she did an internship at a USDA- Agricultural Research Services (ARS) lab in Edinburg, Texas. One of the main research areas she worked with was on Cattle Fever Ticks. The following year, Gabriela participated in another internship experience at the prestigious USDA national laboratory in Maryland. Both of these experiences, along with others, prepared her for a positive transition into graduate school.

    Currently in the Master Biology Program at Texas State University, Gabriela is developing her thesis in collaboration with researchers at the USDA-ARS laboratory, where she interned in the past. She will be addressing the topic about the molecular biology underpinning of insecticide resistance in horn flies, an economically important pest for cattle. Her work will focus on the genomic and cDNA of horn flies to create better methods to study insecticide resistance, which can lead to improvement in control strategies of this pest in the future.

    Gabriela plans to continue her studies to obtain a PhD in Veterinary Medicine and to one day be employed with the USDA conducting research on the eradication, control, and prevention of vector-borne diseases. Conducting research that will benefit both humans and animals is what she aims to accomplish.

  • Ms. Cuellar

    Maria obtained a Bachelor of Science in Human Nutrition and Dietetics in December 2015 and is currently completing her Master’s degree in Food Science and Technology at New Mexico State University (NMSU), where she is determining whether folic acid fortification of maize is possible through the Nixtamalization process. This research aims to increase the consumption of folic acid and thus reduce the prevalence of Neural Tube Defects among the Hispanic population.  Maria is also interested in food safety research and has had the opportunity to work in the Food Safety Laboratory in NMSU where she was researching the heat resistance of the Enterococcus Faecium in inoculated red chilies.

    She is currently a United States Department of Agriculture-Hispanic Serving Institution (USDA-HSI) fellow and has presented her research at various conferences, among them the Graduate Research and Arts Symposium conference at NMSU, and the 2017 Principal Investigators Meeting at Albuquerque, New Mexico. She has completed multiple trainings including Better Process Control School, and all required courses for working in a Biosafety Level 2 Laboratory.

    Maria’s current plan is to apply to the Institute of Holistic Nutrition in Canada after graduation to grasp a better understanding of the intricacy of food properties and their interaction with the human digestive system. Ms. Cuellar continues to positively represent Hispanic women in the food industry and aspire to contribute to the well-being of others.

  • Ms. Juarez

    Marcella is currently studying Agriculture Education at Texas State University. Her thesis is conducting a feasibility study of shipping container farms, a new and innovative method of sustainable agricultural production, in businesses and schools. She is investigating the reason why a business or school might use shipping containers, challenges related to using this method and the benefits it provides. Her study will help identify these factors so organizations who consider using shipping container farms will have a better understanding of this method.

    Upon obtaining her master’s degree, Marcella plans to work with shipping container farms that emphasize sustainable production and focus on social issues by targeting individuals who reside in food deserts and low-income neighborhoods.  Marcella’s education and experiences will be used to educate others on agriculture, healthy lifestyle choices, social issues, and sustainability.

    Marcella firmly believes agriculture and education have the power to transform lives for the better. In the future, she aims to take her expertise to her hometown of Laredo, Texas, where she will help strengthen and implement an agricultural education program throughout the city. The field of agriculture has given her a foundation to share her passion with the world and motivate others.


  • In 2014, Violeta received a Bachelor of Science in Family & Consumer Sciences in Nutrition and Foods with a concentration in Dietetics. She is currently a second year, graduate student in the Human Nutrition program at Texas State University. For her independent research project, she is assisting Dr. Krystal Zuniga, Assistant Professor, in identifying barriers that keep older adults from consuming eggs regularly. The consumption of eggs can serve as a source of protein and several important nutrients for health, which can potentially be critical for maintenance of muscle mass and function in older adults.

    Violeta’s main interest is in community health and the prevention of chronic diet-related diseases. She has gained valuable experience working with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in Bexar County as a nutritionist where she educated low-income families about the importance of a sound diet.

    Upon completing her Master’s degree, Violeta plans to be accepted into a dietetic internship that emphasizes rural populations. She anticipates in successfully completing over 1,200 supervised practice hours in clinical and management/leadership rotations. As a dietitian, she looks forward to applying her expertise in rural communities. In doing so, she plans to implement programs that will change past cultural norms about health by networking with local hospitals and clinics to construct demonstration kitchens at their site, which will be used to educate patients on specific diets associated with their disease.


  • Ms. Marrero-Perez

    Since the start of Marcela’s college career, she has been involved in several projects involving animal production. Her projects included working as a Farm Management intern at William H. Miner Institute in New York and as a Research Intern at the Animal Science Department of the University of Florida, investigating effects of heat stress in the mammary gland of dairy cows.

    She obtained her Master’s Degree at the University of Puerto Rico- Mayagüez Campus under the guidance of Dr. Jaime Curbelo, Extension Dairy Specialist. Her research focused on finding low cost detection tools for early subclinical mastitis detection and identification of bacteria in dairy cows. Her interest in the dairy industry deepened her desire to pursue her doctorate degree at University of Florida, where she is currently specializing in mammary gland physiology and lactation biology.

    She is an active member of the American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists and has worked more than 3,500 hours at a Research Dairy Farm in Puerto Rico. Her experiences have taught her to be a collaborative and motivated team member. Her leadership abilities and curiosity for research motivates her to understand and improve the mammary gland physiology of dairy cows.

  • After graduating from Lee College in May 2013, Brenda was accepted into Texas State University where she completed her Bachelor’s degree in General Agriculture in December 2016. Soon after, she started her Master’s degree in Agriculture Education with a Teaching Certification.

    Brenda was selected for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Grant and is currently a Teacher’s Assistant for soil science and careers in agriculture. She is also a co-advisor for Collegiate FFA. Ms. Morale’s thesis topic focuses on self-efficacy levels of female agriculture instructors teaching agricultural mechanics competencies.

    Once completing her Master’s degree, she plans to educate high school students, preferably in agriculture mechanics. Brenda is dedicated in her studies and looks forward to pursuing her doctorate degree where she plans to devote her time working in academia at Texas State University.


  • In 2015, Julie founded the student-run Plant Health Society, inviting investigators to lecture and encourage students to get involved in research. During her undergraduate studies, Julie was recognized as Outstanding University Undergraduate Leader for her efforts of mentoring students in projects and schoolwork in Economic Entomology, Integrated Pest Management, and Biological Control. She has done Undergraduate Research investigating the effects of nano-particles on the Southern Fire Ant Solenopsis xyloni and comparing it with a behaviorally and physiologically different insect, Bagrada Bug Bagrada hilaris.

    Julie is working to complete her Master’s degree in Plant Science at California State University, Fresno. The past three years she has assisted in coaching University High School, Fresno students with Science Olympiad competitions. Her involvement in FFA since Junior College displays her commitment to the community. Julie’s collaboration with scientists along with overseeing numerous science focused projects, and performing research trials has encouraged her to pursue a doctorate degree.

    She strives to help local growers adopt sustainable practices in agriculture. Although the agriculture field is filled with many challenges, Julie finds it extremely rewarding and aspires to be an effective community leader.

  • Christina graduated from Texas A&M University in 2014 with a degree in General Nutrition. Afterwards, she worked for WIC as a Breastfeeding Coordinator and Clinic Supervisor in Brenham, Texas for a year before transferring to WIC in Austin, Texas where she completed another year as a nutritionist.

    Since then, she has continued her studies and is currently working toward a Master’s Degree in Human Nutrition at Texas State University. Christina’s thesis focus is evaluating the relationship between macular carotenoids and cognition in a young adult population. She is also a Graduate Instructional Assistant for Dr. Christopher Jenney, Assistant Professor, and participates in his lab as a research assistant working to identify nutritional influences of iron and omega-3-fatty acids deficiencies and behavioral differences.

    Christina has also devoted her time in volunteering with Sprouts, a research project lead by the University of Texas that builds gardens in disadvantage Elementary schools in Austin and provides nutrition classes to students and their parents. She has also volunteered with Greengate Farms in Austin as a Food Justice Advocate where she established relationships with local businesses. Her work there will help raise funds for their annual Summer Camp Scholarship Program to help underrepresented youth.

    After completing her Master’s degree, she plans to attend a dietetic internship and work in a clinical setting before starting her own private practice. Christina aspires to become a respected leader in the nutrition and food industry by educating people on the importance of healthy diet.


  • Casiani is an alumna of University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Crop Protection in 2016. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in the Plant Protection program. Casiani started her research in plants early in her academic career studying plants and their related pathogens. She has had the opportunity to work with an endangered and endemic Puerto Rican cactus, Harrisia portoricensis. Casiani has also studied different pathogens that affect the yam tuber and citrus along with Collectotrichum spp., Fusarium spp., and Penicilium spp.

    Under the United States Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food (NIF)-Hispanic-Serving Institute (HSI), she has worked in the Plant Pathology lab at the Research Experimental Station at Isabela, Puerto Rico. Her continued efforts in plant research prompted her curiosity in yam and its associated diseases, particularly in third world countries. Casiani’s thesis, “Evaluation of different doses of organic products to control the populations of nematodes in yam and characterized Penicillium isolates causing internal dry rot in yam” attempts to improve yam farming in Puerto Rico as well as in Africa.

    After completing her graduate studies, Casiani plans to enroll in the doctoral program in plant pathology. Her goal is to educate local farmers on reliable fertilizing practices that will improve crop yield.

  • Elizabeth Villegas is currently working on her doctorate degree in Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

    Her research and policy work centers on understanding the myriad factors that threaten or support the health of low-income Hispanic families and children in general populations. She is currently working on an obesity prevention multistate intervention program for Hispanic Immigrant families across the nation. This intervention program focuses on encompassing the whole family and targeting multiple levels of ecological systems to combat health disparities and childhood obesity.

    Elizabeth has also worked on a number of various projects that seeks to promote health education and healthy lifestyles for young children and families. Elizabeth is motivated to participate in cutting-edge research on issues of health disparities such as obesity, socioemotional well-being, and health inequalities that affect underserved minority populations. She also aspires to serve as a mentor for underserved and underrepresented students as well as community members.