Texas A&M AgriLife faculty and staff from across the state were honored Jan. 14 during the Vice Chancellor’s Awards in Excellence ceremony, which followed the annual State of AgriLife Address, both held virtually this year.
The awards, established in 1980, recognize the commitment and outstanding contributions displayed across Texas A&M AgriLife and celebrate the contributions and achievements of faculty, students and staff members.
Recipients represent personnel in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M Forest Service and Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory, TVMDL.
The Teaching Award was presented to Adrienne Brundage, Ph.D., instructional assistant professor, Department of Entomology. A member of both the Entomology and Forensic and Investigative Sciences faculties, Brundage teaches numerous online, face-to-face, and hybrid entomology and forensic sciences courses. The Forensic and Investigative Sciences newsletter and website she manages are valuable recruitment tools for prospective students. One of her colleagues observed that Brundage “knows students; she knows the effort it takes to engage them, and she is never afraid to lean full-force into that effort.”
The Graduate Student Teaching Award was presented to Heather Baldi, graduate research assistant, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. Baldi’s duties as a graduate teaching assistant involved directing, mentoring and advising student-led science projects and presentations. She also helped train graduate students and undergraduate student workers on the perennial grass breeding and genetics lab procedures. She also served as an officer in the Soil and Crop Sciences Graduate Organization. Her research advisor said, “I believe Heather will be a superior instructor and researcher in the future, and I have no doubt she will be successful in her career.”
The Researcher Award was presented to Jason Gill, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Animal Science and the Center for Phage Technology. Gill’s research focuses on the biology and applications of bacteriophages to control pathogenic bacteria in food, animals and humans. Because of the emergence of bacteria resistant to antibiotics, the use of phages as antibacterial agents is a research area attracting great interest. Gill has authored 47 peer-reviewed publications, five book chapters and received funding support from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Graduate Student Research Award was presented to Alexandria Payne, doctoral candidate, Department of Entomology. Payne’s research investigates the interaction of bees, ants and viruses—especially the possibility that ants can harbor honey bee viruses and help spread viruses between colonies. Her research advances the understanding of the decline of pollinators. Awarded the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and a Texas A&M Doctoral Diversity Fellowship, she received over $370,000 in grants, fellowships and awards. Payne is a founding member of Aggie Women in Entomology and served as financial director and president.
Extension Education Awards
The County Agent Award was presented to Kerry Siders, AgriLife Extension integrated pest management agent, Hockley and Cochran counties. Siders has conducted over 400 applied research and demonstration trials related to integrated pest management and crop production for cotton, grain sorghum, peanuts and other crops. His data helps producers make reliable pest and production management decisions and provides industry unbiased information about new products. Siders has developed innovative outreach methods such as an IPM text messaging service and a newsletter with updates on research, growing conditions and policy.
The Extension Specialist or Program Specialist Award was presented to Mengmeng Gu, Ph.D., professor and AgriLife Extension specialist, Department of Horticultural Sciences. Gu develops research projects and outreach educational programs about sustainable landscape management. Her workshops about unmanned aerial systems address the possibilities of using drones to monitor plant health, irrigation needs, pest pressure and inventory without having to manually scout each crop. Gu is best known for her work with the Crapemyrtle Bark Scale Team, recognized for its national impact via webinars, YouTube videos and publications.
The Diagnostic Services Award was presented to Terry Hensley, DVM, assistant director for TVMDL and AgriLife Extension veterinarian at Bryan-College Station. Hensley’s broad knowledge of veterinary medical topics and extensive experience as a practicing and regulatory veterinarian are valuable resources to TVMDL. His dual role with TVMDL and AgriLife Extension has proven indispensable as he shares insights from the diagnostic laboratory to assist with situations livestock producers face. A colleague said, “He has a deep understanding of the impact of the work the agency performs on animal and public health, and he strives to make a positive difference every day to accomplish that mission.”
The Public Service in Forestry Award was presented to Gretchen Riley, staff forester, Texas A&M Forest Service. Riley coordinates the Forest Legacy Program and serves as agency partnership coordinator, providing leadership on numerous initiatives ranging from land conservation to public health to community tree assessments. A certified arborist, she serves as a member of the Urban Forest Strike Team, helping communities manage and recover from tree damage following major storms. Riley led the development of the smartphone app My Tree ID to help users identify 475 different tree species, and wrote, “Famous Trees of Texas, Centennial Edition.”
The Special Services Award was presented to Todd Sink, Ph.D., associate professor and AgriLife Extension aquaculture specialist, Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management. Sink developed the Aquatic Diagnostics Lab or ADL, supporting Texas aquaculture with highly responsive service and diagnostic results, which were previously outsourced to out-of-state labs. For his exceptional work with ADL, Sink was awarded the Superior Service Award from AgriLife Extension and the Outstanding Extension Education Award from the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in 2020.
The Business and Operational Staff Award was presented to Robert Jensen, business administrator, Unit Business Services. Whether helping student workers get their paychecks on time, graduate assistants complete their employment paperwork, or faculty manage complex grant budget issues, Jensen anticipates problems and suggests efficient uses of funding sources. He also assists with annual performance evaluations for staff members. According to one nominator, Jensen’s leadership and expertise related to business activities for the College and Texas A&M AgriLife Research “are the ‘glue’ that holds the department together.”
The Office and Administrative Staff Award was presented to LeAnn Hague, senior academic advisor, Office of the Dean of College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Hague helped develop/coordinate the Distance Education Program in Plant Breeding in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, provided administrative support for the Molecular and Environmental Plant Sciences graduate program, and coordinated several symposia for the Plant Breeding Grand Challenges initiative. A nominator said Hague, “has the unique ability to counsel students who are excelling as well as students who are struggling. Her counsel is practical, with the appropriate levels of compassion, empathy and kindness, but with sternness when necessary.”
The AgriLife Services Staff Award was presented to Paula Maldonado, senior business administrator, Unit Business Services, was recognized for her contributions to the Department of Food Science and Technology and the Department of Nutrition. She provides exceptional service to faculty members, helping oversee their lab budgets and assists in staff recruitment and hosting visiting scientists. In her nomination, the heads of both departments said, “The split of the former Department of Nutrition and Food Science and successful start of the new departments would not have been feasible without Ms. Maldonado. Her exceptional support, dedicated problem-solving and diligent service have made our departments run smoothly.”
The Technical and Programmatic Staff Award was presented to Steven Canon, manager, livestock operations, Department of Animal Science. Canon coordinates over 10 facilities, their managers and hundreds of animals to support 1,480 students, research programs across all disciplines and species, and AgriLife Extension programs. One of his nominators said, “It’s rare to find someone so dedicated to excellence in all aspects of our university, from research and extension activities to teaching and mentoring students. People like Steve are imperative in our university and college’s mission to graduate and empower the next generation of our industry’s workforce.”
International Involvement Awards
The International Involvement Award was presented to Amir Ibrahim, Ph.D., professor and AgriLife Research small grains breeder, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. Ibrahim is an international leader in wheat breeding, known for his work as an educator, graduate student advisor, geneticist and expert in end-use quality characteristics. Ibrahim served as an ambassador for the U.S. Wheat Industry in seven countries. In addition to his duties as a professor and researcher, he serves as the department liaison for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and International Center for Agriculture Research in the Dry Areas.
The Administration Award was presented to Brent Auvermann, Ph.D., center director for the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Amarillo and chair of the Council of Resident Directors, Auvermann is helping build AgriLife Research’s role throughout Texas. His tenured experience as a researcher and his ability to “lead-by-example” energize his colleagues and AgriLife partnerships to develop a grand vision of integrating agriculture and human health and well-being. He focuses on initiatives that make a difference: providing better resources and technology to research efforts as well as promoting AgriLife-produced crop varieties to the general public and clientele.
The Partnership Award was presented to the COVID-19 Testing Partnership. As medical laboratories struggled to process a flood of COVID-19, TVMDL had more testing capability than any public health lab in Texas because it routinely tests large livestock herds and poultry flocks for infectious diseases. CHI St. Joseph and the Amarillo Pathology Group and Physicians Preferred Laboratory reached out to TVMDL for desperately needed testing capacity, and a partnership was formed. The team worked to obtain authorization to use TVMDL lab space and equipment for COVID-19 testing. By October, the partners had performed over 34,000 tests, representing 40% of all COVID-19 tests in Brazos County and 20% of those near Amarillo. The team expressed their appreciation to Rep. Four Price and his staff for their efforts to help facilitate the collaborative effort in the Texas Panhandle.
TVMDL-College Station team members are Amy Swinford, DVM, associate agency director; Kiril Dimitrov, DVM, Ph.D., virology section head; Pam Ferro, Ph.D., molecular diagnostics section head; and Megan Schroeder, Ph.D., molecular diagnostics assistant section head. Amarillo Pathology Group and Physicians Preferred Laboratory team members are Heidi Dorman, clinical systems administrator; Andrew Hoot, M.D., pathologist; and Charlyn Snow, practice administrator. Other team members are Kimberly Dubose, director of laboratory services, CHI St. Joseph Health; Marcela Jimenez, M.D., pathologist, Brazos Valley Pathology; and Owais Khan, DVM, molecular diagnostics section head, TVMDL–Canyon.
Team Collaboration Award
The Team Award was presented to the Junior Master Gardener Learn, Grow, Eat & GO! Team consisting of AgriLife Extension’s Lisa Whittlesey, senior program specialist and International Junior Master Gardener coordinator; Randy Seagraves, horticulture program specialist; Caren Walton, horticulture program specialist; Michael Lopez, family and community health program specialist; and Rusty Hohlt, Healthy Texas program director, all of Bryan-College Station, as well as Renda Nelson, program director, Better Living for Texans/SNAP-Ed, Amarillo. The team formed from an intervention study targeting childhood obesity among third graders at 28 schools. The study showed a wide range of positive results, including children with a reduced body mass index, increased physical activity and better engagement with parents. In the 2019-2020 school year, the program was offered in 119 Texas counties. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the team created 40 online videos that allowed county programs to continue working with schools. Now their work has expanded nationally and internationally, with 29 states receiving training and supplies. The program is now being used in international development in several countries, and the team continues to expand it to additional age levels and regions.