In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is featuring a NIFA Hispanic-serving Institute (HSI) grant recipient, Alex E. Racelis, Ph.D.
Dr. Racelis serves as an associate professor at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s School and Earth Environmental and Marine Sciences, Department of Biology.
Tell us a little about your path into your current field. Who and/or what inspired you to pursue ecology or science more generally?
As a kid, I was always fascinated by the natural world. I loved being outside and was fortunate to have a chance to do so, even growing up in the suburbs of San Diego, CA. I was free to ride my bike around the neighborhood into undeveloped tracts of land, and my parents would frequently take me camping. Of course, now these tracts of land are filled with homes, and you would have to drive farther and farther to be able to engage with nature. These enriching experiences strengthened in me an appreciation for the environment, which was fostered when enrolled in the University of California Santa Barbara.
My first course in Environmental Studies really deepened my understanding of the functioning of ecosystems and the benefits we get from them and convinced me to switch from a pre-med degree to a double major in Environmental Studies and Biology. In the subsequent four years of undergraduate studies, I took several experiential learning courses that gave me a diversity of relevant experiences: wetland mapping in Colorado, wolf tracking in Montana, science teaching at a local middle school, estimating insect diversity in coffee farms in Costa Rica, examining yard waste as mulch, and implementing biological control of pests in avocado orchards. It was these experiences that really help solidify my passion for the environmental and agricultural sciences, and to realize the diversity of careers in the environmental and agricultural sciences.
Along the way, I benefitted from a handful of impactful teachers and mentors. These mentors not only gave me the opportunity to develop technical skills and knowledge in a practical and relevant setting, but also coached me personally and professionally through the challenges of higher education and impactful, relevant scientific research. They all helped me to understand the importance of persistence, resolve, rigor, compassion, and diversity and inclusion in both science and science-related careers. Jim Downer, Frank Joyce, Thai Van, Min Rayamaji, David Bray, Deborah Letourneau, Erica Zavaleta, Margaret Fitzsimmons, and Steve Gliessman—thank you!
You are a 2021 recipient of an HSI collaboration award. What is the goal of your HSI project and what impact do you hope it has on your institution and trainees?
The primary purpose of this project is to align the efforts of multiple Hispanic-serving Institutions in southern and central Texas that have ongoing programs for academic development and career attainment of underrepresented groups in fields related to sustainability in agriculture, including soil and water management, horticulture, animal science, and whole farm systems. This consortium of HSIs have agreed to collaborate in specific ways: (1) Enhance the quality of education at HSIs by developing a clear intra-state, multiple-point-of-entry roadmap for high school, associates, bachelors, and master’s students interested in food, agriculture, and natural resources-related studies. (2) Facilitate the impactful training of students across the consortium using an assets-based framework that highlights regional opportunities and the cultural wealth of the region(3) Strengthen curricula at partnering institutions through cross-institutional exchange, including annual offerings of short courses to be held each summer at either University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) or Texas State University; and (4) Prepare students for careers in the globally competitive U.S. agriculture industry by providing student experiential learning opportunities at partnering USDA agencies and other institutions, which will increase technical and professional competencies for cross-sector employability. As you can ascertain, most of these goals are derived from my own experience as a student, rooted in providing support and opportunities for trainees to engage directly and gain experiences in agriculture related research, and supplementing those opportunities with direct mentorship and coaching.
HSIs are very diverse environments, not only for Hispanic students, but also for other groups underrepresented in science. Your training (undergraduate and graduate) has been at HSIs. What impact do you think these environments have had on your training, and what are some of the benefits you experienced being at an HSI as a student?
For no particular reason, I had two other colleges in mind for my undergraduate studies. I can tell you that after visiting both (which are not HSIs nor had a particularly diverse student body), I called UC Santa Barbara and asked if they would still accept my application—and they did. I had the same experience with selecting an opportunity to pursue graduate studies—choosing Florida International University over two other non-HSIs for my master’s degree, and University of California Santa Cruz over a couple other opportunities at non-minority serving institutions. In all three instances, I ultimately chose the university where I felt most comfortable and invited—universities that were minority-serving, where I could find communities of other students of color, and where there were university faculty and programs committed to fomenting a sense of belonging in higher education and STEM for minority students.
And now, as a professor at one of the premier Hispanic-serving Institutions in the US, I’ve built upon these personal experiences to purposely try to welcome and include students of diverse backgrounds and perspectives and create a strong sense of belonging in both my lab and in our programs. I mainly do this through a teaching method that imparts scientific skills and knowledge through cultural relevance, experiential learning, and community engagement, and a scholarly framework focused on participatory research that is inclusive, action oriented, and locally relevant. For many minority, first-generation students-including myself- this approach encourages a genuine sense of belonging and social responsibility, which are both major anchors to help students persist in their studies and relevant careers.
How has the NIFA HSI Education Grants program shaped your professional development as a scientist (either as a trainee or currently as a professor)?
In my first year as a professor at UTRGV, I received a 2013 NIFA HSI Education Grant to help support curriculum development, experiential learning, and networking for students interested in agroecology. A year after that, I partnered with a couple of former professors (now colleagues!) from Florida International University and others from New Mexico State University on a 2014 NIFA HSI Collaboration Award to broaden agricultural science education through institutional exchange and interstate alliances. These grant-funded programs focused on providing educational opportunities and close mentorship for students—like the opportunities I had when I was a student. In our most recent 2021 NIFA-HSI Collaboration Award, I partner with two former students who came through these earlier grant funded programs at UTRGV and are now faculty at different HSI’s in Texas.
This project, called the South Texas Agricultural Roadmap in Teaching, Research, Education and Careers (STARTREC), is probably one of the first projects where you have multiple generations of faculty supported by HSI programs! Ultimately, we leverage our shared expertise in food, agriculture, and natural resources-related sciences with a personal and an institutional commitment to provide students across Southern and Central Texas equitable access to education in agricultural, environmental, and sustainability sciences.
What advice to you have for current HSI students who may be interested in pursuing a similar career path?
First, I would recommend for students to seek out opportunities instead of waiting for them to come to you and take advantage of them when offered. This may mean doing research that you didn’t think might be of particular interest or traveling somewhere new as you attend a conference or professional meeting. These experiences can have a tremendous impact on your development, and can help develop some of those skills that are important in any career: communication skills, teamwork, critical thinking, etc.
While you are in college, seek out a faculty mentor, one whom you know can provide you these opportunities, and who ultimately appreciates your contributions. Know that this a two-way relationship, where you are expected to contribute and share as much as you learn. This may be easier at a minority-serving institution, where (in general) faculty are encouraged to focus on student development more than, say, at other research-focused institutions. That said, there are these caring faculty at every institution, but it is up to you to find them!
Finally, I recommend to every student: Surround yourself with those who care about you and your development, people whom you enjoy being around, and who can also encourage you to stay engaged in your studies. This can mean joining a specific lab or student club or participating in meaningful initiatives at your university. During these times of social distancing, it is that much more important to be socially engaged in some way.
The theme for this year’s Hispanic Heritage month is “Esperanza: A Celebration of Hispanic Heritage and Hope.” What hopes do you have for your field of science and its impacts, and for your students?
In my program here at UTRGV, I view teaching, research, service, and community as inextricably linked elements of an integrated, educational approach. My hope is that when this integrated approach is synergized with the cultural wealth of our students and our region, that ultimately our effort helps to broaden a workforce trained to listen, include, analyze, and act while working with farmers and others to address the challenges we face here in our region and beyond. These students will contribute a diversity of skills, worldviews, and attributes that are required to address complex issues of climate change, biodiversity loss, water and energy insecurity, and hunger and obesity—issues that often are compounded with economic and social inequality. I hope that by celebrating this integrated approach and the students and communities who contribute to it, that we can all realize the importance of this work that ultimately benefits us all.
This article is part of a series celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month 2021. Read all the articles in this series: