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2018-2019 USDA Fellows

The American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education, Inc. (AAHHE) in partnership with Texas State University promotes an annual Caminos Thesis Competition in Food and Agricultural Sciences. Competitors thesis are evaluated based on depth of research analysis, methodology and relativity to current global issues.

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  • Luis Ramirez
    Mr. Luis Ramirez, 1st Place Winner
    Thesis: Multi-State Multi-Objective Reliability Analysis of Renewable Energy Systems

    Luis Ramirez is a first-generation college student from El Paso, Texas. In 2016, Luis graduated from The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering. As an undergraduate, a Faculty-Led program in Peru first exposed Luis to sustainability. This experience helped develop the focus and ideals that would ultimately shape his career goals. Luis also interned with the USDA Forest Service in Fort Collins, Colorado and the Office of Resilience and Sustainability at the City of El Paso where he was further able to learn and practice sustainability.

    In 2018, Luis graduated from UTEP with a master’s degree in Industrial Engineering with a concentration in Sustainability while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. As a graduate student, Luis was a research assistant at the Sustainability Engineering & Systems Optimization Lab under Principal Investigators, Dr. Heidi Taboada and Dr. Jose Espiritu. Luis also held a president position for Alpha Pi Mu, the honor society for industrial engineers, and interned at the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in Washington, DC in the summers of 2017 and 2018. Additionally, he was part of three Binational Faculty-Led Engineering programs in Mexico and Peru. 

    Luis is now a full-time Industrial Engineer for the Department of Defense at Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in Patuxent River, Maryland. He constantly seeks opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others, extending aid to those in need, and inspiring the next generation of Hispanic students.

  • Ashley Garcia
    Ms. Ashley Garcia, 2nd Place Winner
    Thesis: Effect of Triclosan-Tolerant Plant Growth Promoting Rhizobacteria on Triclosan Degradation in Soils

    Ashley Garcia is a local Laredoan and obtained a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Biology from Texas A&M International University in 2014. Her passion for research began during her junior year when she analyzed the effects of antimicrobials on microbes found along the rhizosphere of plants. During her undergraduate career, she developed a repertoire of scientific skills including antimicrobial assay optimization and compound identification through gas-chromatography mass spectrometry in Dr. Monica Mendez's lab. 

    Upon receiving her B.A. degree, Ashley enrolled in the Biology graduate program at Texas A&M International University and was awarded a USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative graduate assistantship. As a graduate research assistant, Ashley analyzed the mitigation of triclosan uptake by onions using triclosan-degrading rhizobacteria. During her assistantship, she mentored undergraduate students on the identification of metal tolerant bacteria and development of agricultural sustainability strategies. In addition, Ashley has presented her research at regional and national conferences. She received the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science’s Travel Scholarship for two consecutive years and placed first in the graduate biology division at the Lamar Bruni Vergara academic conference in Laredo, TX. In December of 2017, Ashley was recognized as conservation teacher of the year for her research mentorship by the Webb County Natural Resources Conservation Service.

    Ashley received her master’s degree in August of 2018 while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. Her future research interests include analyzing the effects of anthropogenic contaminants in the environment and natural resource conservation. She also hopes to encourage minority students to pursue careers in the STEM field.

  • Breanda Leal
    Ms. Brenda Leal, 3rd Place Winner
    Thesis: Questing Activity Of Cattle Fever Tick Larvae, Rhipicephalus (Boophilus) microplus (Acari:Ixodidae): Environmental Influences and Implications for Control in South Texas

    Brenda Leal developed a passion for biology during her freshman year of high school. In June 2010 she graduated from Edcouch-Elsa High School. Shortly thereafter, she was admitted and began the undergraduate Biology program at the University of Texas Pan-American. Brenda earned a bachelor’s degree in General Biology in May 2015. In January of 2016, she was admitted and began the Master’s of Science program in General Biology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV).


    With an educational foundation in general biology and ecology, her thesis research focused on the questing activity of Rhipicephalus microplus cattle fever tick larvae. Specifically, with a concentration on measuring the environmental influences on the larval questing activity and testing novel off-host control methods. With the goal of contributing to the control or eradication of the cattle fever tick, she made her results available to the scientific community.


    Brenda first published in the Journal of Veterinary Parasitology in May 2017. Her publication is titled: “Cattle fever tick, Rhipicephalus (Boophilus) microplus (Acari: Ixodidae): Potential control on pastures by the application of urea fertilizer.” Additionally, she published in the Journal of Veterinary Sciences in March 2018. Her publication is titled: “Population dynamics of off-host Rhipicephalus (Boophilus) microplus (Acari: Ixodidae) larvae in response to habitat and seasonality in south Texas.”


    Brenda earned a master’s degree in Biology at UTRGV in August 2018. Immediately after, she entered the doctoral program at the Entomology Department at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. Her proposed doctoral dissertation centers on vector biology with a concentration on the interaction between vector-borne diseases and their vectors.

  • Vicky Espinoza

    Vicky Espinoza is a first-generation student from Los Angeles, California. In 2013, she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in Geophysical Sciences from the University of Chicago. She completed a master’s degree in Environmental Engineering from the University of Southern California in 2017. She is currently working on her doctoral degree at the University of California Merced. Her research analyzes how California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will impact the retirement of San Joaquin Valley’s irrigated lands and how those land use changes will affect already socioeconomically vulnerable communities within the region. She hopes her research provides insight into the future direction of policy and addresses climate change adaptation strategies for the food-energy-water nexus in California and beyond. 

    Her research experiences at Argonne National Laboratory and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory exploring climate change impacts on environmental sustainability, from air quality to water resources management issues at the regional and global scale, have allowed her to embrace the importance in understanding the Earth’s environmental and climatic systems holistically and as interdependent of each other. Vicky has also devoted time to volunteer at underserved schools throughout her educational career through STEM outreach, mentoring, and tutoring. She hopes to inspire these children by sharing her experiences in STEM and being a role model. These research experiences and volunteer opportunities at the early stages of her learning career encouraged her to pursue research opportunities that address water sustainability issues and socioeconomic impacts on vulnerable communities within the San Joaquin Valley, California.

  • Jorge Galarzo Prieto

    Jorge Galarza is a first-generation master’s student in Food Science and Technology at New Mexico State University (NMSU). He is a recipient of the Merit Based Fellowship Award and the USDA’s Southwest Agriculture and Food Security Education Grant. He obtained a Bachelor of Science in Human Nutrition and Dietetic Sciences in 2015 from NMSU.

    Jorge’s master’s-level research involves working with Glandless Cotton Seed Meal and developing an aquaculture feed for shrimp expected to save aquaculture farmers up to 90% in feed expenses. His research and tuition are funded by the USDA’s SAFE Grant award.

    Jorge has participated in multiple internships and has been a graduate research assistant since January 2017. In the summer of 2017, Jorge participated in an internship where he worked closely with 20 industrial engineers in an effort to develop a viable sun-drying method for the jujube fruit. In the fall of 2017, Jorge was appointed mentor to a group of engineers examining the characteristics of Cotton Seed Meal. More recently, during the summer of 2018, he earned and completed an internship with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service branch where he performed amino acid analysis via derivatization.

    Upon receiving his master’s degree in May of 2019, he will pursue his Ph.D. in biology. Jorge’s doctoral studies will concentrate on microbiota in organisms. In the future, he hopes to work for federal agencies including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Jennifer Gil-Acevedo

    Jennifer Gil-Acevedo was born and raised in Puerto Rico. Although from a small island, she always dreamed big. Jennifer earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Interdisciplinary Science from the University of Puerto Rico in 2015. As an undergraduate, she assisted in conducting research sponsored by the NASA Space Grant in a Nanotechnology Research Laboratory. She also presented research at several conferences and earned multiple awards including “Best Undergraduate Oral Presentation” at the Ana G. Mendez University System Symposium and won the 2015 National Nanotechnology Initiative Student Video Contest. Upon earning her bachelor’s degree, she was awarded a fellowship under the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program.

    Jennifer is enrolled in the master’s program in Environmental Science at Florida International University and anticipates completing her degree in December, 2018. As a graduate student, she was the recipient of a USDA-NIFA HSI Broadening Agricultural Science Education grant. In addition, she was awarded a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship and she is currently conducting research at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. She aspires to be a great communicator of science to the general population particularly the Latino community.

  • Viridiana Lunda

    Viridiana Luna is a first-generation master’s degree student in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC). She is a recipient of the UIUC Graduate College Distinguished Fellowship Award. She obtained a Bachelor of Science in Molecular and Cellular Biology in 2016 from UIUC where she also was part of the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program. As an undergraduate student, she had the opportunity to participate in summer research opportunities at the University of Illinois-Chicago College of Medicine and the Harvard School of Public Health. These experiences formed her interests in health disparities and the desire to pursue a graduate degree.

    Her research interests include community nutrition, obesity prevention, and understanding sociocultural factors that influence health behavior and outcomes in Hispanic families. She is advised by Dr. Margarita Teran-Garcia. Viridiana’s research endeavors involve working with a multi-state, childhood obesity prevention program for Hispanic families that is funded by the USDA. She develops culturally-tailored nutrition education materials and facilitates the evaluation of program outcomes.

    Following the completion of her master’s degree in 2019, she hopes to continue working in community engaged research to inform health policy and programming that can help low-income communities live healthy lives. She spent a summer interning with the Hispanic Health Council in Connecticut to understand how SNAP-Education programs are implemented and evaluated. She would like to work with the federal nutrition assistance programs or the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. She looks forward to implementing program evaluation findings to policy recommendations.

  • Yanira Miranda Cortés

    Yanira Miranda Cortés is a graduate student from the Agricultural Sciences College of the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus. Yanira graduated with her bachelor’s degree in Crop Protection in 2016 and is currently working on her graduate degree specializing in Phytopathology under the same major. 

    As an undergraduate, she had the opportunity to participate in multiple research initiatives including the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Earth Team volunteer program. Also as an undergraduate student, she participated in many different courses and workshops that contributed to her professional training including a beef cattle course, an organic hydroponics workshop, and a genetically modified organism risks and benefits workshop. Yanira also attended various scientific meetings and symposiums including the Puerto Rico Agricultural Biotechnology Industry Association convention in September 2018. During the summer of 2018, she worked alongside Dr. Diego Viteri on the monitoring of citrus greening in citrus and performing bioassays on Helicoverpa zea in the corn crop.

    Yanira has always been interested in contributing her knowledge to the development of productive and sustainable agriculture in order to increase food security. For this reason, her thesis project is focused on the evaluation of yam propagation methods such as the minisetts technique, tissue culture, and bioreactors to increase the availability of a disease-free seed.

    Upon receiving a Master of Science, Yanira plans to continue her studies in the area of plant pathology in order to be an integral part of state, federal, or private research that contributes and supports agricultural progress.

  • Armando Olivas

    Armando Olivas is a first-generation college student from San Antonio, Texas. In 2017, he graduated summa cum laude from Texas State University with a Bachelor of Science in Family and Consumer Sciences, majoring in Nutrition with a concentration in Dietetics. As an undergraduate, Armando earned multiple awards acknowledging academic excellence, maintained a 4.0 GPA, and was involved in promoting healthy dietary practices with the Student Nutrition Organization. He also gained valuable experience in the lab setting and conducted literature reviews on the effect of retinoids on colorectal cancer.

                Armando’s interest in the field of nutrition includes sports dietetics, nutrition’s impact on carcinogenesis and cancer progression, as well as efforts to mitigate global hunger and food insecurity. Upon receiving his B.S., Armando enrolled in the Human Nutrition graduate program at Texas State University and is currently in his second year. He volunteers in a nutrition and cancer prevention lab under Principal Investigator, Dr. Ramona Salcedo. He is working on a publication on the research topic of the impact of calcium signaling, pro-inflammatory factors, and obesity on prostate cancer incidence and progression. 

                Upon receiving his M.S. in Human Nutrition, Armando’s goal is to pursue a Dietetic Internship to become a Registered Dietitian. As such, he intends to focus on nutrition’s impact on oncology and collaborate with national and global agencies whose initiatives aim to mitigate world hunger and food insecurity. As a first-generation college student, Armando aspires to become a role model and mentor for up-and-coming Latinos in academia.

  • Jennifer Parra

    Jennifer Parra is a Texas A&M University graduate originally from Brownsville, Texas. In 2016, she received a Bachelor of Science in Sociology and completed pre-requisites for nursing school. As an undergraduate, she was an active member of Future Aggie Nurses, Survivorship Director for Aggie Relay for Life, and a volunteer at Chi St. Joseph Regional Hospital in the Emergency Room Department. She was also a student worker in a microbiology lab where she learned the basic techniques of pipetting, polymerase chain reaction, and gel electrophoresis.

    After graduation, Jennifer was hired as a full-time research assistant at the Texas A&M Health Science Center to become an integral part of a project funded by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency where she performed bacterial transformation to build a mutant library on Coxiella burnetii. Although accepted into nursing school, Jennifer moved back home to the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) to work as a cooperative with the University of Texas RGV and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

    As of Fall 2018, Jennifer is enrolled as a graduate student at UTRGV in biology where she continues to work under the direction of Dr. Erin Schuenzel and Dr. Norman Barr to research some of the most detrimental pests to U.S. agriculture in South Texas, California, and Florida. Upon receiving a Master of Science in Biology, Jennifer hopes to continue research in agriculture with USDA and become an advocate and role model for future students in the RGV who aspire to conduct scientific research.


  • Kasandra Perez

    Kasandra Perez is a second-year human nutrition graduate student at Texas State University. She was born and raised in Laredo, Texas. In 2017, she graduated from Texas State University with a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Foods with a concentration in Dietetics. As an undergraduate, she routinely served her communities by assisting in meal preparation for food-insecure children and the general population in San Marcos and Laredo, Texas. In addition, Kasandra was one of few students elected to represent Texas State University at the 2017 Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Annual Conference and Exhibition.

    Kasandra’s interest in the field of nutrition is extensive and includes the application of nutrition to enhance athletic performance, prevent disease, and promote wellness in individuals and families of all backgrounds. As a Graduate Research Assistant under the Caminitos Collaborative, she conducts research on the impact of nutrition on early childhood education and has presented her findings at the Hays County Early Childhood Coalition’s Summit on Early Childhood. Kasandra is currently working on her thesis under Dr. Lesli Biediger-Friedman on the topic of early childhood feeding practices and school readiness.

    Upon receiving her graduate degree, Kasandra intends to pursue a dietetic internship and become a registered dietitian. As such, she aims to apply empathy and research-based nutrition knowledge as a foundation to her approach in educating families, resolving nutrition deficits, and addressing food insecurity. Kasandra aims to become a mentor for Latinas in academia and encourages others to pursue their dreams.




  • Jessica Paola Saldierna Guzman

    Jessica completed her undergraduate studies in Biological Sciences at the Autonomous University of the State of Morelos, Mexico. Paola’s primary research interest is bacterial adaptations to diverse habitats. She joined the research group of Professor Katy Juarez at the National Autonomous University of Mexico where she conducted her undergraduate thesis project titled “Identification of Bacteria in Soil Contaminated with Cr(VI) by 16S rRNA Analysis.” This project involved the identification of potential bacteria for bioremediation. Shortly thereafter, Paola worked at the Environmental Engineering Laboratory in San Diego, California where she tested water and food for contamination of microbial pathogens for public safety. Paola then joined the laboratory of Dr. Joseph Ecker at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies where she investigated transcription factor binding sites via chromatin immunoprecipitation in order to identify target genes regulating agronomically important traits.

    Paola earned her master’s degree in 2018 from the University of California (UC) Merced where she investigated bacterial endophytes in stress tolerant conifers. She hopes that the identified bacteria can be applied to crops to improve stress tolerance and reduce the application of fertilizers. In 2018, Paola began her doctoral program at UC Merced. She currently conducts research focusing on understanding interactions between bacterial endophytes and their host plants under Dr. Stephen Hart.

    Upon receiving her Ph.D., Paola would like to collaborate with diverse research groups to develop biotechnological and sustainable approaches to minimize impacts on environmental health. Additionally, she would like to build educational programs designed to promote and educate children on science and sustainability.

  • Seylie Serrano Jiménez

    Seylie Serrano Jiménez is a native of Camuy, Puerto Rico. Currently, she is a graduate student and instructor of Agro-environmental Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in Mayagüez. In 2017, Seylie obtained her bachelor’s degree in Biology with a minor in Biomedical Sciences and subsequently enrolled in the graduate Crop Protection program at UPR – Mayagüez in August of 2017.

    Her main research interest is phytopathology in plants of agricultural importance. In particular, she is interested in researching plant cell to cell communication in response to fungi. In 2017, she collaborated on a research project focusing on the morphological and pathogenic description of Penicillium spp, a causal agent of dry rot in the yam tuber. In addition, she also practiced yam tuber tissue culture techniques. Today, she collaborates in research projects aiming to identify morphologically and genetically distinct varieties of Dioscorea rotundata and Dioscorea alata species in order to assess susceptibility to Colletotrichum spp, a causal agent of anthracnose in the crop.

    Upon receiving a Master of Science in Crop Protection, Seylie plans to begin doctoral studies in virology. Her emphasis will be in agriculture as she would like to collaborate on research initiatives with the United States Department of Agriculture. As a current laboratory instructor for tropical phytopathology and crop production fundamentals, Seylie strives to be a mentor to students aspiring to become involved in agricultural research.



  • Megan Zamora

    Megan Zamora is a first-generation college student from San Antonio, Texas. In the spring of 2016, she graduated from Texas State University with a Bachelor of Science in Biology. The following fall, Megan began the master’s program in Human Nutrition at Texas State University. As an undergraduate, Megan taught the General Chemistry II lab and was a supplemental instructor for General Chemistry I.

    Through these experiences, she gained teaching and mentoring experience. As an undergraduate, Megan also realized how important a healthy lifestyle is for the mind and body. Megan’s interest in nutrition and an active lifestyle influenced her decision to pursue a master’s degree in nutrition. She believes both a healthful diet and an active lifestyle can resolve many of the United States’ problems with chronic disease and obesity.

    As a graduate student, Megan now conducts research in an obesity and cancer laboratory under principal investigator, Dr. Ramona Price-Salcedo, where she is focused on the topic of visfatin and its mechanism in liver cancer. She is working on a thesis project titled “The Role of Visfatin in Sorafenib Resistant Liver Cancer.” It involves identifying visfatin’s mechanism of action in obesity-related liver cancer. Megan is also working on a review paper focused on obesity and cancer mechanisms.

    Upon receiving her master’s degree, Megan plans to apply to a Ph.D. program in the biomedical sciences at UT Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas. She plans to either continue research in cancer biology or widen her scope and delve into genetics and epigenetics.

  • Giovanina Hinojosa

    Giovanina is a second-year graduate student in the Department of Biology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) in Edinburg, Texas. In the spring of 2017, she graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in Biology from UTRGV. While an undergraduate student, she worked as a research assistant in the School of Medicine, interned in the research lab of Dr. Michael Persans in the Biology Department, and volunteered in the Palm Valley Animal Center. She was also awarded several academic scholarships including the UTRGV Engaged Scholarship Award, the Harry and K.L. Wheeler scholarship, and the STARS scholarship. Giovanina also participated in multiple poster presentations at various conferences including The Research Society on Alcoholism, The Engaged Scholar Symposium at UTRGV, The UTRGV College of Science Annual Conference, and the 8th International Conference on Algal Biomass, Biofuels and Bioproducts. 


    Giovanina’s experiences in research as an undergraduate intensified her interest in science and ultimately prompted her to pursue a master’s degree in Biology. She is currently a second-year graduate student and conducts research on microalgae lipid synthesis for use in biofuel production in the lab of Dr. Michael Persans. She has been awarded a USDA scholarship grant to aid her in her graduate studies. Upon graduation, Giovanina is interested in a career in academia, industry, or doctoral studies in Biology. She seeks to increase the representation of Hispanics in STEM positions and wishes to encourage the next generation of Hispanic students to engage in science careers.