2019-2020 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.
Guadalupe Alfaro is a registered dietitian in Los Angeles, California originally from San Salvador, El Salvador. Guadalupe completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Family and Consumer Sciences with a focus in Nutrition and Dietetics from California State University Northridge. Throughout her graduate career, Guadalupe was a graduate research assistant and became part of the USDA’s “Pathways to Success.” She entered this program as a dietetics fellow and outreach ambassador during her dietetic internship.
Guadalupe has more than five years of experience in health education; she has assisted underserved communities and individuals of all ages, helping them improve their health through diet. She taught cooking classes for individuals with diabetes to help them control and monitor their glucose levels. Then, Guadalupe lead Healthy Parenting workshops and grocery store tours as part of a childhood obesity prevention grant called CHLA kids. Thereafter, she was a Clinic Supervisor and Lactation Educator for the Women, Children, and Infants (WIC) program where she promoted breastfeeding and healthy eating habits.
Crystal Alvarez is the daughter of two Cuban refugees and is from Hialeah, FL. This community is a small part of Miami, where most of the population is Hispanic and Spanish is the primary language. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Management from Florida State University in 2014 and is currently a graduate student at Texas State University.
Crystal began to build a fervor for science in high school. She desired to delve deeper into academics, which led her to pursue a master’s degree in Human Nutrition. She is currently working on her thesis under the supervision of Dr. Michelle Lane and Dr. Sylvia Crixell. Her research focuses on the relationship between the maternal diet and ante- and post-natal cognition.
Paola N. Badillo Chico is pursuing a master’s degree in Plant Pathology at the University of Puerto Rico. She completed her bachelor’s degree in Biology with a concentration in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico. As an undergraduate, she conducted research on the antimicrobial effect of Genipa Americana, a native fruit of Puerto Rico. Paola was the recipient of the Encouraging Careers in Food Security and Safety grant. She was also a member of the National Biological Honor Society.
Maribel Barragan is a first generation Mexican-American graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2017, she graduated from California State University, Fresno (CSUF) with a Bachelor of Science degree in Food and Nutritional Sciences with a concentration in Dietetics. As an undergraduate student, she served on the board of the Student Nutrition and Dietetics Association. She also completed over 250 hours of volunteer work. Maribel conducted research that involved delivering the Abriendo Caminos (AC): Clearing the Path to Hispanic Health program, an obesity prevention curriculum provided to Hispanic families in the California Central Valley. She has presented her findings at several local and regional conferences.
In May 2018, Maribel completed her dietetic internship at CSUF and she is now a Registered Dietitian. She is currently a second-year master’s student in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests focus on obesity and the role of diet in the recruitment of pro-inflammatory cytokines to adipose tissue. She also mentors underrepresented students that volunteer with AC.
Upon receiving her master’s degree, Maribel will continue to put efforts into helping Hispanic families have better health. Through nutrition education, she aspires to help reduce the prevalence of obesity and diabetes in the Hispanic population. She also hopes to become a part-time instructor at a local college and continue to mentor underrepresented students who want to pursue higher education.
Manuel A. Cornejo is a second-generation graduate student from Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. In 2015, he graduated with honors from Universidad Autonoma de Baja California with a Bachelor of Science degree in Pharmacobiology Chemistry. As an undergraduate, he completed a thesis on the expression of a recombinant protein intended for developing a vaccine for paratuberculosis.
Manuel is currently a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Quantitative and Systems Biology at the University of California, Merced. His current research focuses on the effect of different interventions, such as diet, anti-diabetic drugs, and surgery, on the improvement of metabolic syndrome on a model of type II diabetes. His research efforts have been performed in collaboration with the Pharmacology department at the University of Kagawa, Japan. He also mentors and oversees undergraduate students at this lab. Manuel is in the process of submitting his first publication on the effect of caloric restriction and mass recovery in metabolic syndrome. He is also an active member of 4venir, Inc., a non-profit organization that promotes scientific, technological, and artistic education for K-12 students in the California Central Valley, especially first-generation students.
Upon receiving his Ph.D., Manuel plans to further his research as a post-doctoral fellow in a clinical setting. His long-term goal is to find strategies for the prevention and improvement of metabolic syndrome. He also aims to use his experience to become a mentor for younger generations.
Jessica Dominguez is a current graduate student at Florida International University. In 2013, Jessica received her bachelor’s degree from Florida International University in Biological Sciences. She is currently working on obtaining her master’s degree in Environmental Studies. She defended her thesis in July of 2019 and is expected to graduate in December 2019. Then, she will pursue her Ph.D. beginning in the Spring of 2020.
Upon earning her bachelor’s degree, Jessica became a middle school science teacher. Although becoming a teacher was not in her plans, Jessica gained one of the best experiences in her career. It was during this time, that Jessica realized that she aspired to educate and communicate the importance of science. Therefore, Jessica opted for higher education to become a stronger educator, mentor, and scientist. Currently, her thesis work encompasses citrus greening, which is a destructive and devastating disease of citrus. Current preventative and treatment measures are not very effective, and most farmers apply antibiotics to their citrus. Jessica is concluding her thesis work by expanding the options for treatment that are environmentally safe. She has achieved isolating bacterial extracts that significantly decrease the citrus greening pathogen. Jessica will continue to work on citrus greening for her doctorate, building on her thesis results.
Jessica is passionate about giving back to her community through science education. She is excited about her future, which includes contributing to future innovations and discoveries that will benefit the planet.
Anisa P. Elizondo is a first year graduate student originally from Austin, Texas. Currently, she lives on her family’s farm in Staples, Texas. In 2018, she graduated from Texas State University with a Bachelor’s of Agriculture in Business and Management with a specialization in Agribusiness Management. As an undergraduate, Anisa received Dean’s List honors on multiple occasions. Anisa has also developed her own company, Twisted E Boer Goats, in which she breeds show goats.
Anisa’s interest in agriculture, particularly in food safety, rural farmers, and agricultural education, led her to enroll in the Integrated Agricultural Sciences Master’s program at Texas State University. Under the supervision of Dr. Pratheesh O. Sudhakaran, she is researching consumer’s willingness to pay based on food safety in the marketplace. Additionally, she is working on a grant proposal called RAISE UP. This would contribute to her goal of raising awareness about agriculture and the potential careers available to Hispanic 4th graders and high school students. Anisa is also working on a publication pertaining to rural farmers and the impact that urban sprawl has on their farming communities.
Upon receiving her master’s degree, Anisa intends to pursue a Ph.D. in Agribusiness and Managerial Economics. With this, she aims to fully understand the changing landscape of the American farmer and the current viewpoint on agriculture. As a Latina in the field, she also hopes to inspire younger generations of women to pursue a career in agriculture.
Juan V. Fernandez is a Ph.D. student studying Environmental Science and Engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). He graduated from UTEP with a bachelor’s degree in 2015 and earned his Master of Science degree in Industrial Engineering in 2017. During this time, Juan was also a National Science Foundation Scholar.
As an undergraduate, Juan participated in study abroad programs in Piura, Peru and Ensenada, Mexico. Some of his projects during this time involved the development of a carbon footprint calculator with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for precision agriculture to develop sustainable practices in agricultural processes. He was also a research assistant and had the opportunity to present his work at multiple conferences. This research focused on biofuel supply chain optimization, logistics, and supply chain management.
Juan has also held several internship positions with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). One internship was with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) where he implemented multi-parameter soil sensors for data collection. He held another position with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) where his main duties included database management and panelist support. Juan continues to intern with NIFA and aspires to work full-time for the USDA in the future. As a first-generation college student, Juan hopes to work in the public sector and give back for all the help he has received on his own journey towards excellence.
Tatiana Gamez is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of California–Berkeley. She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in Ecology and a minor in Chemistry from the University of North Texas in spring 2015. She also completed a master’s degree at Texas State University in Aquatic Biology in fall 2018.
After earning her bachelor’s degree, Tatiana worked as a laboratory technician at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. There, she explored the impacts of changes in freshwater inflows on bethic estuarine communities. During her graduate enrollment at Texas State University, Tatiana was awarded by the Lower Colorado River Authority. She received funding and was able to study eutrophication and harmful algal blooms in Lake Buchanan, Texas. In fall 2018, Tatiana successfully defended her thesis. She is currently pursuing her doctorate degree in Oceanography with an emphasis in chemical oceanography. Tatiana is initiating her dissertation research on coastal eutrophication and carbon cycle feedback mechanisms at the microbial level. After completing her Ph.D., Tatiana plans to pursue a career in academia as a chemical oceanographer and phytoplankton ecologist. Additionally, during her time away from school, Tatiana worked for the City of Austin as an environmental scientist.
Claudia Garcia was born in Santiago, Cuba and immigrated to the United States when she was six years old. In December 2017, she earned her bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences at Florida International University (FIU). Driven to continue her academic career, Claudia also earned also earned her master’s degree in Environmental Studies with a focus on Agroecology at FIU in July 2019. Her thesis titled, “Inoculating rhizobium and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi on snap bean under salinity stress to study plant growth and glomalin effects” was published in the journal, Agronomy, as “Effect of Salinity Stress and Microbial Inoculations on Glomalin Production and Plant Growth Parameters of Snap Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris).”
Claudia has always been interested in pursuing a career in which environmental science and aiding the public go hand-in-hand. She is now working as FIU’s Farmers Outreach Program coordinator, a program that aims to help beginning farmers, socially disadvantaged individuals, minorities, and veterans to acquire technical skills and knowledge in agriculture through internships and workshops. She aspires to work as an environmental scientist or consultant, where she can make a difference by providing expert assessment and advisory services on matters pertaining to the management of environmental issues.
Ian J. Gomez is a second-year graduate student from Houston, Texas. In 2018, he graduated cum laude from Texas Southern University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Dietetics. He then gained admission into the combined master’s degree in Human Nutrition and dietetic internship program at Texas State University. In May 2019, Ian graduated from his 1,200 hour dietetic internship, where he gained valuable experience in community and clinical rotations. As a student, Ian earned multiple awards acknowledging academic excellence. He has also been involved in promoting healthy dietary practices through a variety of experiences, including a nutrition and health summer internship in Nome, Alaska and a maternal and child health fellowship.
Ian’s interest in the field of nutrition includes clinical pediatric dietetics and the impact of nutrition on diseases and disorders of the gastrointestinal tract. He takes an individualized approach to better understand patient needs and preferences, while being mindful of diverse cultural, socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.
Ian is currently studying for the national board exam to become a Registered Dietitian (RD). Ian aspires to become a clinical pediatric dietitian and investigate methods to improve treatment and management of diseases and disorders of the gastrointestinal tract among the pediatric population. Ian strives to become a role model and mentor for disproportionately represented groups in academia and dietetics. He also hopes to become a university professor to help aspiring dietitians.
Jazmine Leija is a first-generation graduate student from McAllen, Texas. In 2018, she graduated from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree at UTRGV. Jazmine is also a certified Dental Assistant with additional certifications in CPR and First Aid. Jazmine has been the recipient of several scholarships, including the Jones Academic scholarship.
As an undergraduate, Jazmine joined Dr. Michael Persans research lab to study freshwater and saltwater algal species. This research investigates the use of algae as bio-indicators of the water quality for agriculture, as well as their ability to produce lipids for biofuels. This experience encouraged her to pursue her master’s degree, where she will continue to work with Dr. Persans. She will also begin to conduct independent research on the different methods for cryopreservation (freezing) of the algal species previously tested for later use, without killing the cells.
Jazmine aspires to work for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). She strives to protect public health by ensuring the efficacy, safety, and security of biological products, medical devices, and human and veterinary drugs. Upon receiving her master’s degree, Jazmine plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Biology. She also hopes to increase Hispanic representation in STEM positions by encouraging the next generation of Hispanic students to pursue careers in science.
Fabiola Mancha is a first-generation graduate student at Texas State University. In the spring of 2018, she completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Microbiology and a minor in Biochemistry at Texas State University. Currently, she is pursuing a master’s degree in Aquatic Biology.
As an undergraduate, Fabiola started teaching anatomy and physiology to pre-nursing students. Meanwhile, she also took courses on immunology, medical microbiology, and neurobiology. These amplified her comprehension on the human body and helped her become a better instructor and a tutor.
Fabiola is passionate about empowering individuals through education. After graduating with her master’s degree, she plans to teach at the community college she attended. There, she hopes to promote an integrative approach that emphasizes diet, nutrition, wellness, and reproductive health. Additionally, Fabiola plans to apply to medical school in the near future and become a primary care physician. She aspires to work in underserved areas in Texas and be able to provide health care to those in need.
Melody Martinez is a graduate student at Texas State University. She graduated from Texas State University in 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in Aquatic Biology. She is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Aquatic Resources.
Melody’s mother always instilled in her the importance of education by enrolling her in various education programs. She was once enrolled in a program that allowed her to go camping, which inspired her love for nature and passion for conservation. As an undergraduate, Melody worked as a laboratory assistant with the A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery in the Inland Fisheries division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. She is currently working at the Huertas Laboratory conducting research on how external factors affect fish chemical communication, which is a vital interaction for reproduction, feeding, and predator avoidance.
Through her work, she has gathered technical skills in biochemistry, behavioral assays, histology, and molecular procedures. Upon receiving her master’s degree, she hopes to use these skills to pursue a doctoral degree focusing in toxicology, endocrinology, and physiology. As world population and industrial activity increase, toxin inputs into aquatic systems are an undesired and unavoidable outcome. Melody’s primary goal is to understand how pollutants affect fish survival and ensure their availability as a food resource for future generations.
Ana Irene Mitchell is a first-year graduate student and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder with a bachelor’s degree in Integrative Physiology in 2015. She then joined Teach for America in Denver teaching Biomedical Science at West Early College High School. During this time, Ana developed and pioneered a biomedical pathway program, served as the high school science department chair, and managed the West Community Garden. Throughout her time as a teacher, Ana grew passionate about empowering her students to advocate for their own health and well-being. She aims to combine her experience in nutrition education and passion for health equity to earn her Ph.D. in Nutritional Sciences.
Ana’s dissertation focuses on identifying the impact of a food systems-based nutrition education curriculum on academic outcome and food selection, consumption, and waste among middle school students. She has also conducted research in the area of resilience on modulating health outcomes of Hispanic individuals affected by adverse childhood experiences. Specifically, she did research in Mexico studying the impact of chronic stress on diet and physiological markers related to metabolic syndrome. Her ultimate goal is to improve the health outcomes for Hispanic and other marginalized communities by accelerating the translation of academic research to community applications.
Whitney E. Ortiz is a graduate student at Texas State University. She also graduated from Texas State University with a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology. She was a part of the Honor’s College and wrote a thesis titled, “Reexamining the Classification of Viruses as Nonliving Based on their Evolutionary Patters.” She is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Aquatic Biology.
As an undergraduate, Whitney was an active researcher, as laboratory work has always been the focus of her studies. She has carried her interest in microbiology and laboratory work into her graduate career. She is currently working with Dr. Mar Huertas, and hopes to contribute to the knowledge regarding the importance of the microbiome. She is currently studying the impact of pollutants on the microbiome of aquacultural relevant species. In addition to her individual research, she has contributed to other projects requiring bacteria and monitoring test organisms.
Upon receiving her master’s degree, Whitney plans to pursue a doctoral degree focusing on the impact of changes in the microbiome to overall immune health. She hopes to investigate possible connections to microbiome health to infectious disease, with a specific focus on emerging zoonotic disease. Whitney realizes the importance of demonstrating that Hispanic students are successful in STEM fields. She aspires to influence others in her community to pursue higher education and strive to change the demographic of STEM fields to better match the diversity of the country.
Casiani M. Soto-Ramos is a research assistant at the Crop Protection Program in the Department of Agro-Environmental Sciences of the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez. She graduated from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez with a bachelor’s degree in Crop Protection in 2016 and a master’s degree in Plant Pathology in 2018. She currently investigates viruses found in pineapples. Her previous research encompassed the endangered plant species Harrisia portoricensis and several crops in Puerto Rico such as yam, banana, plantain, and many others. Additionally, she has worked with pathogens such as nematodes, fungi, and bacteria.
Her thesis was focused in the identification of plant parasitic nematode, such as Pratylenchus coffeae and others. Furthermore, she examined the application of traditional, organic, and biological nematicides for control of nematode populations, along with soil surveys and sampling, samples processing, and nematode extraction from soil, roots and yam tuber. Additionally, she had the opportunity to characterize Penicillium species and their control and citrus greening in Puerto Rican grafts. Casiani has worked with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Extension Service (AES), and the Experimental Agricultural Station (EAS) of Puerto Rico.
For Casiani, plant pathology represents the opportunity to safeguard the food of the current and next generations. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Agro-Nematology, and with her other projects, make a contribution in food safety. Her ultimate goal is to educate, improve the life quality of others, and strengthen the agriculture around the world.
Zaira Suarez is a first-generation graduate student at Texas State University. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and Foods with a minor in Biochemistry from Texas State University in December 2017. As an undergraduate, she was part of the Student Nutrition Organization and volunteered in the Best Food FITS program, where she practiced nutrition education and promotion. She wanted to continue her education by enrolling in a research-focused master’s program, and she is now pursuing a master’s degree in Human Nutrition.
After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Zaira worked for the Supplemental Food Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). There, she provided nutrition education and counseling for pregnant women, post-partum women, and breastfeeding mothers who experienced food insecurity. Zaira is now working at an integrative medicine clinic that specializes in treating persons with eating disorder. She is learning more about eating disorders and how to provide support by establishing a healthy relationship with food and nutrition. She is also interested in the mechanistic approach of nutrition research, such as nutrigenomics and longevity, and how lifestyle factors can impact these.
Zaira hopes to become a registered dietitian, and she plans to apply to the Texas State dietetic internship to enter in the 2020 cohort. Upon completing the dietetic internship, Zaira will be eligible to take the certification exam to become a registered dietitian. She hopes to work in the clinical field of dietetics, especially in the neonatal intensive care unit and helping mothers have successful breastfeeding experiences.
Edil Vidal Torres is a laboratory technician at North Dakota State University in the Wheat Quality and Carbohydrates Project. She is originally from Santiago Rodriguez, Dominican Republic. She completed her bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Technology at ISA University in Santiago, Dominican Republic. Upon completing her degree, Edil moved to the United States. She then graduated with a master’s degree in Food Science and Technology at the University of Puerto Rico.
Throughout her graduate studies, Edil has been presented with a number of opportunities to further her career. She has participated in internships for AgriLife at both Texas A&M University and North Dakota State University. Additionally, she received an award from the Annual Pastures and Forage’s Conference in Arkansas where she presented on her research. Edil has also served as a teaching assistant at the university, which has expanded her knowledge in agronomy.
Carla I. Vidal is a second-year graduate student at Texas State University originally from Laredo, TX. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Human Nutrition. Additionally, she is completing coursework requirements to obtain her verification statement in the Texas State University dietetics program.
After graduating in 2013, Carla worked in marketing and sales. However, she developed an interest in exercise and nutrition. She explored and learned about food programs, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Subsequently, Carla became passionate about food security and the importance of childhood nutrition. She was inspired to switch career paths and pursue a master’s degree in Nutrition. Throughout her graduate career, Carla has worked with Bobcat Bounty, the on-campus food pantry, helping the Texas State community by providing food access to ultimately increase food security on campus. She also works as a Graduate Instructional Assistant for the Food Systems lab.
Upon receiving her master’s degree, Carla hopes to be accepted into a dietetic internship to become a Registered Dietitian. She is keeping her mind open to the multitude of opportunities provided by the variety of fields in nutrition. Despite which path she decides to follow, she hopes to continue working in community nutrition in some capacity. She aspires to help many individuals and their families by securing and increasing access to healthy foods.