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Production and food science faculty unite to train next generation

WSU extension and research faculty recently wrapped up a multi-year, High-Value Horticulture and Processing internship program. In total, 24 interns were hosted by WSU in the summers of 2018, 2019, and 2022. Support for the project came from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates (NIFA REEU) program. This federal program aims to provide undergraduates with hands-on experiences that build new skills that will prepare them for the agricultural workforce. Our WSU team worked at the intersection of sustainable food production, processing technology, and food safety to provide undergraduates nationwide with life-changing research and extension experiences.

Diversity of interns and mentors
Interns came from diverse backgrounds, and many ​traveled​​ long distances for the opportunity. Across the program, 17 out of 24 interns were women, and 50% self-identified as minorities. Seven interns were WSU students, 3 were from other WA universities, 3 were from community colleges in WA, and 11 were from universities outside of Washington, including AL, AZ, CA, GA, OR, MA, NY, PA, and VA. Thirteen different WSU faculty participated as mentors throughout the program. Mentors came from Extension, Crop and Soil Sciences, Viticulture and Enology, Horticulture, Entomology, and the School of Food Science.

Building a horticulture and processing cohort
One goal of our program was to intentionally connect interns in a peer learning community. Half of the interns were hosted at Research and Extension Centers (RECs) in Wenatchee, Prosser, Puyallup, and Mount Vernon or through county offices; half were on the Pullman campus. Since their primary work locations were scattered across the state, our main ​strategy​​ to provide opportunities​​ for interns to interact with each other ​and their faculty mentors ​and form lasting bonds with peers with similar interests was a week-long stay at the Quillisascut Farm School of the Domestic Arts. Quillisascut is a goat dairy ​farm ​that, in recent years, has specialized in training chefs in farm-to-table opportunities.

The five days spent at Quillisascut were​​ a​ highlight for most interns. In addition ​to ​getting involved in specific farm operations (goat management, milking, cheese-making, vegetable production), we provided core knowledge around agroecology, soils, food safety, and value-added production. All interns participated in the Farm School, and many found the experience enriching and informative.

Finding their path, building confidence, and sharing their knowledge
​​Mentored ​​internships​ can be excellent opportunities to build confidence ​and skills among​​ budding scholars. Some interns noted that it can be intimidating to ask questions of their more experienced mentors, but many interns developed strong relationships with their mentors, which opened up new opportunities for continuing in academic research or transitioning to successful careers in industry. ​

Many of the participating interns benefited​​​ from ​interactions with a diverse group of colleagues through formal and informal discussions with other faculty, postdoctoral scholars, and graduate students working on related projects. Interns see that everyone is learning and brings different expertise t​o collaborative research and extension activities. One intern reflected on their experience, stating, “[The experience taught me to] be open and acknowledge what you do not know. You are surrounded by experienced individuals who are able to help if you just let them know what you don’t understand. Often, things that are common knowledge to them, you still need to ask questions about. And that is okay. Knowing what you do not know is extremely valuable.” Many interns noted that they felt proud of their contributions to their research lab and expected to stay in contact with their mentors. Several noted that their mentor had helped them plan for future internships and job opportunities and actively connected them with resources for continued learning and professional development.

Independent study opportunities are rare for undergraduates but extremely valuable. One student noted, “The REEU experience really gave me a good understanding of ​what ​working in research was really like. This was the first time I was so in control of all the aspects of a project, from designing the experiment parameters to figuring out the needed supplies. I learned so much more from this than I did from any of my classes about what it really takes to run a project.”

Many interns and mentors ​collaborated​ on publications and other durable products together. Each intern presented their research at a symposium on the Pullman campus for undergraduate research. In addition to these 24 conference presentations, four publications are under review, one new website was created, five blog posts were published, and one intern created a video about her experience.

Several mentors and interns expressed that mentorship programs are vital in increasing the representation of women and minorities in agriculture and food science. Being surrounded by scientists from diverse racial, gender, and cultural backgrounds demonstrates that there is a place for everyone and strengthens the research community. Supportive mentoring can include providing moral and emotional support, expressing confidence in the intern’s capacity to learn, grow, and master new skills, discussing work/life balance issues, providing advice about career and academic pathways, fostering opportunities to learn and practice leadership skills, and discussing and managing direct and indirect sexism and racism.

Lessons learned and future opportunities
Our program leveraged WSU’s previous investments in undergraduate research and added a state-wide and Extension emphasis. WSU has supported undergraduate research internships on the Pullman campus for many years. Interns on the main campus are provided with housing, support, and community.

However, tapping into the great research and community involvement happening through WSU across the state required flexibility and problem-solving. Housing was one of the biggest ​challenges​​ since rooms are limited at RECs​ and are often already booked by graduate students. For our program, CSANR staff worked with interns to help them find short-term housing. In addition to a stipend for their work, ​the NIFA REEU​​ grant supported interns’ travel and lodging costs, which helped with the relatively expensive off-campus housing. Directors at RECs are well aware that ​ensuring a sufficient supply of available ​housing can facilitate ​summer research ​​opportunities ​for students, ​and many are working to increase the number of rooms available.

Our interdisciplinary team had a shared vision for providing opportunities for undergraduate students that meshed well with the opportunity provided by NIFA’s REEU program. Specialization is rewarded in our academic culture, but learning to think holistically and work across disciplines is necessary for transformational change. Interns dove deep into a specialty but took time to learn from their peers working in different disciplines.

​Interns’ experience at Quillisascut Farm was especially impactful in guiding their learning and professional development–​​ ​Lora Lea and Rick Mysterly, the farmers and instructors at Quillisascut Farm, have a gift for encouraging reflection about agriculture, society, and nature. Students were able to connect their specific research questions​ with ​broader themes, such as ​​sustainable food production in a changing climate​​ and food safety and health. Conversations while weeding the vegetables, preparing meals, or breaking bread across the farm table encouraged students to consider themselves important actors in the agricultural workforce.


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