AgriLife Research centers offer opportunities not found in books
Every year, students from universities find either full-time or part-time work in the fields and laboratories of scientists such as Charlie Rush, Ph.D., at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Amarillo.
Rush and other scientists take on the role of teacher, and their greenhouses, labs and fields become hands-on "classrooms" for the students. The biggest difference is that students don't have to pay to go to class; they get paid.
Most of these scientists do not have an official teaching responsibility with any university, but the work they do with the students and the "classrooms" they oversee plays a valuable role in a time when scientist numbers are declining, especially in the applied sciences, said Rush, an AgriLife Research plant pathologist.
"That's where we excel," Rush said. "We can take these students to the fields to meet the producers or the end users of their science. You talk to any university and people are talking about the lack of broadly trained students."
Whether it is the undergraduate student at a summer job, a graduate student working his way through his master's program or a post-doctoral student, they are exposed to both basic and applied science and see the benefits of integrating the two, Rush said. In his "classroom," they use molecular science to answer pathogen diagnostic questions.
"There's another advantage for these students when they come to work for someone like me," he said. "At our facilities at Bushland, on one side is the office of a plant physiologist and on the other side is the office of a research entomologist.
"Because we really do collaborative research here, they get to come out and rub elbows with other programs and see firsthand whether they like the work or not," Rush said. "You just can't buy that experience anywhere."
Another benefit is the letter of recommendation for further studies, which might carry more weight than someone who worked for a fast-food restaurant or grocery store, he said.
"It's such a good opportunity for so many of these students who go on to graduate school and into professor positions."
Jacob Price knows firsthand about the experience. Price went from being a cook at a local restaurant to a student worker.
He moved within the AgriLife Research plant pathology program from a student worker to a technician, then later earned a master's degree from West Texas A&M University and became a research associate. He is now pursuing his doctorate at Texas Tech University while serving as an adjunct faculty member at Amarillo College.
"Whenever I got my associate degree, I went all over the place and applied for biology-type jobs and couldn't find one," Price said. "It was really only after one of my professors introduced me to Dr. Rush and I was given the opportunity to start working as a student worker that I found a good job.
"So my advice to other students is to get to know your professors and take the opportunity to get involved with student working programs such as those at Texas AgriLife."
Price said he had no agriculture interest initially and was interested in using his biology associates degree in the area of human pathology. But the experience he received with Rush "changed my life," he said. Now his goal is to continue agricultural research and eventually become a full-time professor.
Rush can go through a list of students who have started as student workers with his program, including Kathy Vaughn, a student worker who pursued a master's degree, went into private business and is now with AgriLife Research in Lubbock; and David Jones and Casey Childers, who learned Global Positioning System programs under Rush's precision agriculture project and then got hired by the U.S. Army.
"I love to hire someone when they are a sophomore or junior and get them plugged into the system," Rush said.
He said he normally gives them a hoe and puts them in a field by themselves to determine if they are willing to work and do as they are asked. If that works out, then he takes them into his labs and starts exposing them to the science.
Rush said he narrows it down a little further by having them do tedious work such as looking through a microscope all day and that helps determine where their strengths might be. As they demonstrate willingness to work and interest in a particular area, they are assigned to projects of their own.
"Then, as they near graduation, we plant the seed of getting a master's degree. Some do, some don't," he said.
Rush said the process doesn't stop there; it continues with graduate and post-doctoral students.
This whole process instills values and develops the work ethic needed to set up a successful research program, he said. And with each student comes new technology and ideas for the program. Then the process is perpetuated when the graduate-level students begin working with student workers.
"We bring people in and plug them in to write research proposals and get graduate students of their own," Rush said. "This exposure of student workers to other young people who have made that choice to go forward with their careers is of tremendous value."
Rush said when he was in graduate school, there weren't too many students older than him, so he didn't have any mentors in the lab. In the situation where student workers are working with post-docs who are in the program, they get that mentoring experience.
And this mentoring process, the perpetuation of the careers in agricultural sciences by exposure in the actual hands-on classrooms, is repeated by many scientists throughout the 13 Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Centers across the state.
"Post-doc students who go through the program and then become faculty somewhere else are a source of pride," he said. "But they are more than that; they help us build a network of possible collaborators around the world."