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Oregon State University agricultural research updates

Support for Multicultural Students is Building New Professionals

Omar Miranda-Garcia & Emily Escobedo
Multicultural Scholars Omar Miranda-Garcia and Emily Escobedo have chosen a rigorous program of bioresource research to reach their career goals and eventually to make a difference in migrant worker communities. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.

Six minority students at Oregon State University will get closer to achieving their career dreams through OSU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Multicultural Scholars Program.

USDA grants will provide each student with four years of tuition, a paid summer internship, and a trip to a national career conference, all part of the mission to promote multicultural diversity in agriculture, especially in high level positions where minorities are underrepresented.

Two of the USDA Multicultural Scholars have specific goals that are rooted in migrant worker communities where they hope to make a difference. Emily Escobedo foresees a career in protecting migrant workers and their families from exposure to pesticides; Omar Miranda-Garcia will focus on improving the health and nutrition of minority populations.

All six students are part of OSU’s Bioresource Research Program (BRR), a nationally recognized undergraduate program that engages students in high level, real-world research in agriculture, natural resources, and human health. In addition, OSU supports minority scholars through the student organization Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANRRS). MANRRS provides leadership training, peer mentoring, and the opportunity to make connections during its national career conference.

“We know that bioresource research training is really valuable to under-represented, first-generation diversity students,” said Wanda Crannell, who advises students in the BRR and MANRRS programs. “Pursuing a tougher major with more breadth and experience is going to make them more competitive in their careers.”

These OSU programs, and support from the USDA, have already made a difference for pre-veterinary student Ashley Seeley. Unable to pay for a fourth year of college, Seeley’s goal of becoming a Spanish-speaking vet in Oregon was in doubt. As a Multicultural Scholar, Seeley is now looking forward to completing her pre-vet-med program with a language immersion exchange in Spain and an internship in applied genetics at the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine.

Although the graduation rate is low for freshmen from historically under-represented groups (within the Oregon University System, about 54 percent graduate within six years), according to Crannell 95 percent of OSU’s MANRRS students have graduated. The funding and support from OSU and USDA encourage minority students to challenge themselves in research and leadership, and build the skills they will need for successful professional careers.

Fighting Disease with a Double-Edged Sword

Kerkvliet and Bradford
Searching for chemicals that can suppress a faulty immune system, immunotoxicologist Nancy Kerkvliet and research assistant Sam Bradford analyze cells with a flow cytometer. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.

Dioxin is a double-edged sword. Scientists at Oregon State University have found that dioxin can be effective in fighting diseases triggered by faulty immune systems. The only catch? Dioxin is toxic. It’s in the Vietnam-era herbicide Agent Orange and can cause a disfiguring skin disease in humans.

So a team of OSU researchers led by toxicologist Nancy Kerkvliet is searching for a chemical that works like dioxin to fight autoimmune diseases, but will not trigger new diseases.

Studying one type of dioxin referred to as TCDD, Kerkvliet unraveled dioxin’s effect on the immune system of mice. First, it binds to a protein (AhR) found inside a cell. The bound dioxin and AhR then pass into the nucleus, latch onto DNA, and turn certain genes on or off. This process produces regulatory T cells, which then shut down the immune system’s response, which in turn suppresses the development of diabetes.

To help Kerkvliet find alternatives to dioxin, OSU cancer biologist Siva Kolluri and his crew are screening 50,000 compounds in search of ones that function like dioxin to induce regulatory T cells.

If they’re successful, their results could bring relief to people who suffer from autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, and type 1 diabetes.

Kerkvliet and Kolluri’s work is supported by a $1.8 million grant from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Two Universities Deliver One Top-Flight Program

OSU logo with EOU logo

Clark Seavert is an economist. He studies agricultural finance, returns on investment, production economics. You might think that Seavert is a bit boring, a bit dry, a product of marble libraries and linoleum floors. You would be wrong.

In 1984, Seavert enrolled in Oregon State University’s Agriculture Program at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande. He was one of the 27 freshmen that made up the program’s first graduating class.

“I had family living in the area,” says Seavert, who is originally from North Dakota and is now the director of OSU’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora. “At that time fishing and hunting were really important to me, maybe more than school. It was the setting that drew me there—but the agriculture program kept me there.”

This year, that program celebrated 25 years of partnership between OSU and Eastern. By Rachel Robertson Multicultural Scholars Omar Miranda-Garcia and Emily Escobedo have chosen a rigorous program of bioresource research to reach their career goals and eventually to make a difference in migrant worker communities.

“When I got there, the class sizes were small, and the professors were passionate,” says Seavert. Although he admits he was not the best student at the time, he got the extra help he needed and formed close relationships with faculty.

When the OSU/EOU partnership began, there were only two teaching faculty and a single degree with one minor offered. Today, the program supports nine faculty members, 160 full time students, and one of the nation’s largest programs in rangeland ecology and management. Degrees are offered in five different agriculture and resource areas, with seven minors; and 500 students have received degrees from OSU through this program.

Many graduates have stayed in eastern Oregon, according to Larry Larson, the OSU Agriculture Program Coordinator at EOU. “They remain part of the agricultural community and the land-grant mission of the state,” he says.

Then there’s Seavert: the student who joined the program for its proximity to hunting and fishing and who once left a frozen lutefisk on a professor’s desk over a long weekend. Seavert, when it comes down to it, is not boring at all. “Really, though, the program was, and continues to be, a place where students can have the laidback lifestyle of eastern Oregon while getting a serious education that prepares them to excel in agricultural and natural resource fields.”

Published in: Innovations