Vice Chancellor’s Awards in Excellence honors were presented to Texas A&M AgriLife faculty, staff and graduate students from across the state at the Texas A&M AgriLife Connect ceremonies held Jan. 11 on the Texas A&M University campus.
Previously known as the Texas A&M AgriLife Conference, AgriLife Connect is a time to unite as an organization, celebrate the people who make the organization thrive, and hear updates and vision for the future from Texas A&M AgriLife leadership.
Since 1980, the agency has annually recognized individuals and teams who have made exceptional contributions with the Vice Chancellor’s Awards in Excellence, the highest awards given by Texas A&M AgriLife. Award recipients serve within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Texas A&M Forest Service and Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory, TVMDL.
Vice Chancellor Awards of Excellence
Early Career Research
Daniel Spalink, Ph.D., an assistant professor and director of the S.M. Tracy Herbarium in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, was presented with the Early Career Research Award. Since joining Texas A&M in 2018, Spalink has built a highly successful and internationally recognized plant systematics and biogeography research program. His research quantifies the historical processes that have led to observed patterns of plant biodiversity to develop conservation strategies on a changing planet. Spalink uses and develops bioinformatic tools to integrate disparate sources of big data – genome-scale molecular data as well as herbarium, geologic, geographic, climatic and functional trait data – to model plant diversification and assembly at unprecedented resolution and at multiple spatial and evolutionary scales. Also, he has stewarded the herbarium’s unique and priceless collection into a premier resource for interdisciplinary and transformational research, applied learning and public service.
Nithya Rajan, Ph.D., AgriLife Research agronomist and professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences received the Mid-Career Research Award. In her 14-year career, Rajan has consistently advocated for developing innovative climate-smart agricultural strategies to address climate change, leading to remarkable opportunities and impact. She also has been instrumental in securing grants to build a nationally recognized program dedicated to organic agriculture in AgriLife Research. Another crucial aspect of Rajan’s research focuses on mitigating nitrous oxide emissions from croplands. She has established a pioneering research program to develop “nitrogen-smart crop varieties.” Rajan’s exceptional grantsmanship has brought more than $12 million to her program and vastly more for collaborative projects. She has authored or co-authored at least 68 peer-reviewed journal articles and has chaired or co-chaired over two dozen graduate students.
Muthukumar “Muthu” Bagavathiannan, Ph.D., the Billie Turner Professor of Agronomy and AgriLife Research weed scientist in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, was selected as the Research Award winner. Bagavathiannan’s research program has quickly gained national and international recognition in weed science research. He leads the world’s largest weed science program in collective terms of size, funding, multidisciplinary collaborations, productivity and international outreach. He currently co-leads the development of a national weed, cover crop and cash crop image repository that is already catalyzing public and private innovation. He also conceived and co-leads a global consortium on artificial intelligence and machine learning for weed detection and management to expand these activities globally. Bagavathiannan is a global pioneer in developing and applying digital weed detection and management technologies.
Graduate Student Research
Morgan Thompson, a doctoral student in the Department of Entomology, received the award for graduate student research. Nominators say Thompson has excelled throughout her graduate career at Texas A&M, establishing herself as an expert in her research discipline and a leader in the department and scientific community. Her expertise is in chemical ecology, plant-insect-microbe interactions, plant physiology and plant defense against insect herbivory. She is a highly productive scientist and has achieved tremendous research success, authoring nine peer-reviewed publications in prestigious journals. She has also obtained research funding through competitive grants, including a Northeast SARE Graduate Student Grant, Texas Ecological Laboratory Research Grant and Sigma Xi Grant in Aid of Research. Most notably, she was invited to present at the “Rising Stars of Entomology Symposium,” which showcases the top five up-and-coming scientists within the field of entomology.
Technical and Programmatic Staff
Katrina Horn, research associate in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, received the Technical and Programmatic Staff Award. Horn, who started as an undergraduate student assistant in 2010, is the program coordinator for the Crop Testing Program. She is responsible for managing the state variety trials for corn, sorghum, soybean, sunflower, sorghum silage and corn silage, with test sites reaching every major grain production region from the Rio Grande Valley to the High Plains. The corn and sorghum performance trials alone had nearly 700 entries. Horn’s attention to detail enables the team to produce high-quality data for farmers and the seed industry. During planting and harvesting, she constantly communicates with producers and program staff to ensure efficient use of resources, which has increased productivity and helped foster and maintain relationships around the state.
Tenure/Tenure Track Teaching
Juliana Rangel Posada, a professor in the Department of Entomology, was selected as the recipient of the Tenure/Tenure Track Teaching Award. In her 10-year career at Texas A&M, Rangel has demonstrated dedication to students as learners and future professionals. She has a unique passion for recruiting, mentoring and retaining students from highly underrepresented groups. Her conscious efforts to increase inclusion in the fields of entomology in general, and apiculture in particular, have led to developing a research and outreach team comprised of synergistic talents from the diverse and multi-faceted efforts that every member brings to the table. She dedicates much of her spare time to the professional and personal development of her mentees and has spent countless hours ensuring her students succeed and get recognized for their contributions to science and society.
Academic Professional Tract Teaching
Leslie Kelso Winemiller, Ph.D., instructional professor in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, was named the Academic Professional Tract Teaching Award winner. Kelso-Winemiller has successfully taught many thousands of students during her 30-plus-year career as a college educator. She stands out due to her uniquely strong commitment to individual students’ needs. As a result, her nominator said her students adore her. Before the start of each semester, she takes the initiative to send a welcome letter to every student, equipping them with tools for academic success. Kelso-Winemiller consistently offers transformative learning experiences for TAMU students. She was among the first instructors on campus to implement classroom engagement technology, and her dedication and passion for science have not gone unnoticed. She has been honored several times for exemplary professionalism, innovation and dedication to teaching and service.
Graduate Student Teaching
Morgan Powers, a graduate assistant in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, was presented with the Graduate Student Teaching Award. Her nominators described Powers as a clear, concise lecturer who goes out of her way to make her classes interesting. She has a strong grasp of the material in both theory and practice. She always asks the students questions during the lecture and requires them to answer before she moves on so that she can assess whether they are understanding the concepts or if she needs to take another approach. She never just tells them the answer to their questions – she makes them reason their way to it to make them develop their critical thinking skills. She was previously awarded the Paul Barry Gayle Graduate Teaching Award by the department.
Student Success and Relations
Jessica Light, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, was selected for the Student Success and Relations Award. According to her nomination, Light diligently creates environments that foster student success. She teaches several undergraduate and graduate courses, sometimes with more than 150 students. Her courses include lectures and laboratory or fieldwork components, allowing for interaction in more informal settings. Beyond teaching, her research lab thrives on rigorous scientific inquiry and genuine human connection. She strives to ensure that each student acquires a valuable skill set to make them more competitive in their chosen career. She also serves as an advisor to several student groups and coordinates training programs like Aggie Allies and Green Dot, emphasizing the significance of mental health and self-care, and offering students unwavering support when they face adversity.
Extension Education Awards
Shane McLellan, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension agriculture and natural resources agent in McLennan County, was presented with the County Agent Award. McLellan has been with the agency for 25 years, serving in Hill County and Freestone County before spending the past 16 years in McLennan County. He has hosted almost 400 educational programs in his career, covering everything from livestock to row crops and urban issues and wildlife. He is a respected educational leader within AgriLife Extension, a team player and an example of the agency’s mission and goals. One of his supporters wrote, “Because Shane has been around for a while, he has served and continues to serve as a mentor for new agents within the district. He is one of those agents who, if he ever retires, simply cannot be replaced.”
Extension Specialist/Program Specialist/Extension Associate
Jourdan Bell, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension agronomist and associate professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences in Amarillo, received the Extension Specialist Award. Since joining the agency in 2014, Bell has led a multidisciplinary, grant-funded extension and research program on the Texas High Plains addressing agronomic management of cotton, sorghum, wheat and corn plus alternative crops including canola and hemp. Bell has helped producers negotiate reduced irrigation capacities coupled with intensifying droughts, volatility in commodity markets and transitioning livestock sectors. She has spoken at more than 420 programs, field days and invited meetings, demonstrating her ability to convey scientific principles to producers and stakeholders to improve crop management. Her accomplishments speak to her work ethic, but the trust she has earned from producers and fellow colleagues speaks to her program’s quality.
Public Service in Forestry
Donna Work, a biologist IV for the Texas A&M Forest Service office in Lufkin, has earned the Public Service in Forestry Award. Her nomination stated that Work embodies the values of conservation and sustainability and is equally capable of delivering educational presentations in conference rooms and demonstrating practical applications of her work on the ground during field tours. She has served the state of Texas for over 30 years in various roles for the Texas A&M Forest Service. Her dedication to ecological health and the protection of endangered species has made her a champion for the red-cockaded woodpecker, which now has a home in two Texas state forests. Work’s upbeat attitude toward implementing policies allows her to serve as an intermediary between the government, industry and private landowners for the benefit of all.
Martin Ficken, DVM, Ph.D., resident director of TVMDL’s Gonzales laboratory, was awarded the Diagnostic Services Award. Ficken uses his invaluable expertise in poultry disease and pathology to serve the state of Texas and the nation, often assisting large commercial clients as well as backyard poultry owners. Ficken joined TVMDL in 2009 as a pathologist. Now, as a resident director, he splits his time between administrative and lab work. In 2022, Ficken used his diagnostic testing expertise to limit the harm caused by highly pathogenic avian influenza in Texas after he detected the first case in the state. His willingness to go beyond what is asked of him has protected the 700 million chickens in Texas. Ficken works continuously to share his knowledge with the public, his clients and his colleagues.
Administrative and Programmatic Staff
Donna Witt, senior administrative coordinator for the Department of Animal Science, received the award for Administrative and Programmatic Staff. Her nominators said she plays an integral role in the success of the department’s academic programs. Her exceptional administrative skills, institutional knowledge and personability enable her to provide an unmatched level of programmatic support for student success. Service to students is the foundation of Witt’s career at Texas A&M, and it is evident in everything she does for the department. As the first point of contact for potential students, she uses her extensive institutional knowledge and network of professional contacts to answer their questions and help them envision themselves at A&M. The connection that she has is genuine, as students continue to engage her throughout their academic careers and even long after graduation.
AgriLife Professional Service Units Staff
Helen White, a communications specialist II with Texas A&M AgriLife Marketing and Communications, was presented the AgriLife Professional Service Units Staff award. For 32 years, White has dedicated her time, excellence and passion to the service of the people of Texas A&M AgriLife. She has helped faculty and staff across the agencies and College edit and share their information and accolades with the world. In the past two years, she has been asked to stretch her writing capabilities to communicate the heart and passion of the people in the agency by capturing the human interest and people-focused stories that emanate from within Texas A&M AgriLife. Additionally, her three decades of developing skills and learning about the Texas A&M AgriLife system from top to bottom are invaluable as she shares her wisdom with the team to craft effective messaging and content.
Business Operational Staff
Lori Martin, senior administrative coordinator I for AgriLife Extension District 1 in Amarillo, received the Business Operational Staff Award. In her 21-year career, Martin has exemplified professionalism, leadership and a desire to serve others. She is the unit contact for human resources, payroll, budgeting, purchasing and general business matters. She serves as an effective liaison, collaborating professionally with people at all levels of AgriLife Extension, county officials in District 1, state-elected senators and representatives and external committees. She is described as dedicated, innovative and continually looking for better ways to accomplish job tasks. She is forward-thinking, an early adopter and skilled at sharing her knowledge via informal or formal training. Her nomination states: “Lori knows that leadership is about serving others and helping them be their best.”
International Involvement Award
Urs Kreuter, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, was presented the International Involvement Award. Kreuter’s research program concentrates on understanding the human dimensions of managing rangelands and how to integrate them with the economic and ecological components of ecosystems. He has devoted much of his 40-year academic career to wildlife conservation in Africa. Kreuter has led a study abroad program 15 times and taken 224 Texas A&M students to South Africa. Additionally, he has completed two extended sabbaticals in Southern Africa, during which he has established strong relationships with several African universities and institutions. These collaborations led Kreuter to be named a research fellow at the African Wildlife Institute and an Honorary Professor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Leland “Sandy” Pierson, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology, received the Administration Award. Pierson served as head of the department from 2009 to 2022. Before stepping down, he also served as acting head of the Department of Horticulture for a year and then was named interim associate director and chief scientific officer for Texas A&M AgriLife Research, until his retirement in December of 2023. His nomination cited both his treatment of faculty and students and his interactions with agency stakeholders as his key leadership skills. Pierson also oversaw the building of a new plant pathology and microbiology building, ensuring it included items deemed essential by the department. He was cited for his efforts to build a professional and collegially supportive culture across the department on and off-campus and to strengthen AgriLife’s collective excellence, abilities and reputation.
Special Services Award
Ray Riley, Rosenthal Meat Science and Technology Center manager in the Department of Animal Science, was named the Special Services Award winner. Riley’s special role involves keeping a complex facility operating and open; meeting the needs of teaching, research and extension; and complying with state and federal regulations for food safety. Among his tasks is co-leading the very popular programs Barbecue Summer Camp and Camp Brisket. In addition, he supports meat-judging activities for hundreds of 4-H and FFA members. His nominators write that when COVID-19 hit the meat industry, local cattle producers encountered issues finding a place to harvest their cattle. Several producers contacted Riley for help, and after he obtained administrative approval and labeling approval from the Department of State Health Services, the Rosenthal Center was able to start harvesting and processing the cattle.
The Dallas Extension and Research Collaboration on Family Health team from the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Dallas received the Collaboration-Partnership Award. Members of the collaboration were Paula Butler, AgriLife Extension regional program leader; Jacob Szeszulski, Ph.D., assistant professor; Julie Gardner, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension program specialist; and Alexandra MacMillan Uribe, Ph.D., assistant professor. Over the past two years, their work has exemplified the characteristics of an ideal collaboration required to carry out the mission of land-grant universities – to provide readily available, research-based programs and educational resources to improve the lives of the individuals, families and communities within the state. Their synergistic collaboration has produced positive outcomes for both the AgriLife Extension and AgriLife Research units in Dallas. This collaborative partnership has amassed over $4 million in research funding over two years through six research grants to improve physical activity, nutrition and chronic disease prevention among North Texas families. They have also greatly expanded the reach of AgriLife Extension’s evidence-based programs through collaboration with a variety of government organizations, non-profits and other community organizations that have direct connections to the health of local communities across Texas.
The Healthy Texas Unit Team was selected to receive the Collaboration-Team Award. The Healthy Texas Unit team includes Rusty Hohlt, Ph.D., program director, Bryan-College Station, and AgriLife Extension program specialists Luisa Gonzales-Colin, Weslaco; David Leal, Corpus Christi; Elaine Montemayor-Gonzalez, Bryan-College Station; Erica Reyes, Weslaco; Julie Tijerina, Laredo; Amy Valdez, Weslaco; and Carissa Wilhelm, Dallas. Through community education and services, Healthy South Texas works in 27 counties in South Texas to encourage the adoption of healthy lifestyles by program participants. The diverse programs promote health through topics like regular physical activity, strength training, healthy meal preparation, weight management, mindfulness and gardening. Partnerships in local communities and with Texas A&M Health are critical for program development, implementation and evaluation. In addition to supporting program development, specialists have also been mobilized to support responses to emergencies like Zika, Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19. One supporter said, “This team’s work truly improves the lives and health of children and families in the region.”
Special Recognition for Impact
A Special Recognition for Impact award was presented this year to the Boll Weevil Eradication Program.
For almost a century, boll weevils plagued the U.S. Cotton Belt. Then, during the past 30 years, entomologists and producers came together in a vast, far-reaching collaboration to execute the Boll Weevil Eradication Program. This program was one of the most successful public-private partnerships in U.S. agriculture history.
Boll weevils are still found on about 6,000 acres in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. But before the eradication program, these insects plagued millions of cotton-growing acres from California to the Carolinas, causing billions of dollars in losses and detrimentally affecting the environment.
Today, Texas cotton production contributes $2.4 billion to the state’s gross domestic product and supports more than 40,000 jobs statewide. The eradication program’s success is due to a collaboration between the cotton industry, state and federal agencies, and cotton farmers.
For this enduring achievement, the award recognizes the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation, an organization operated and funded by cotton farmers, as well as the effort’s collaborators at Texas A&M AgriLife and collaboration and support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service in College Station and the Texas Department of Agriculture.
Members recognized were:
· Charles Allen, Ph.D., professor emeritus and associate head for the Texas A&M Department of Entomology; AgriLife Extension range specialist; and past chief administrative officer of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation.
· Woody Anderson, a cotton producer and chairman of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation Board of Directors.
· Patrick Burson, chief administrative officer of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation.
· Raymond Frisbie, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension entomologist; professor emeritus and past head of the Texas A&M Department of Entomology; and past chairman of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation Technical Advisory Committee.
· Tom Fuchs, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the Department of Entomology; retired AgriLife Extension state integrated pest management coordinator; and current chair of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation’s Technical Advisory Committee.
· Kenneth Gully, member of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation Board of Directors.
· Roy Parker, Ph.D., retired AgriLife Extension entomologist; professor emeritus in the Department of Entomology; long-time member of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation Technical Advisory Committee.
· Lindy Patton, president and CEO of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation.
· Don Rummel, Ph.D., retired AgriLife Research entomologist and professor emeritus in the Department of Entomology.
· Larry Smith, past chief administrative officer of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation.
· Craig Shook, member of Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation Board of Directors.
Photos of award winners can be found at https://tx.ag/ViceChancellorAwards2024.
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Author: Kay Ledbetter