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. 12 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 Vice Chancellor’s Awards in Excellence, the highest awards given by the Texas A&M AgriLife. Award recipients serve within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences or at one of four agencies: 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.
Neville Clarke dedication
This year the event was dedicated to Neville Clarke, DVM, Ph.D., who was a giant in Texas A&M AgriLife’s past and was the epitome of what the awards represent — service and lasting impacts on not only the agency, but also on Texans and the worldwide agriculture community, said Jeffrey W. Savell, Ph.D., vice chancellor and dean for Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Clarke was the founding director of the Innovation Lab for Small Scale Irrigation, which focused on methods and practices to enhance the use of small-scale irrigation in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Ghana to benefit the regions’ farmers. The Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture manages the lab, part of AgriLife Research.
He was the first leader of the National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense, FAZD, at Texas A&M University, now the Institute for Infectious Animal Diseases. FAZD was founded in April 2004 as a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence. Clarke served as its leader for 12 years.
Clarke was instrumental in getting the Agricultural and Food Policy Center at Texas A&M University created in the mid-1980s during his AgriLife Research leadership.
Prior to becoming the FAZD leader, he was an associate dean for research in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and a professor in the Department of Veterinary Physiology and Pharmacology.
Other positions Clarke filled over the years included director of Texas A&M University’s Center for Natural Resource Information Technology, director of the Institute for Countermeasures Against Agricultural Bioterrorism, and executive director of the Southern Association of State Agricultural Experiment Station Directors, which represented 13 southeastern states.
He was a founding chair and member of the Board of Directors for the International Livestock Research Institute; he was chair of the advisory group for the formation of the Centre for International Livestock Research; vice chair, International Centre for Livestock Research in Africa; and vice chair, National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Clarke authored or co-authored more than 150 scientific publications, including scientific reviews of bioterrorism. He also helped write Leadership in Agriculture: Case Studies for a New Generation; Volume 1 — Bioterrorism: Intentional Introduction of Animal Disease in the Spread of Pathogens through International Trade; and Volume 2 — Bioterrorism: Intentional Introduction of Animal Disease.
Vice Chancellor Awards of Excellence
Tryon Wickersham, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Animal Science, was presented the Teaching Award. In his 16 years, he has taught over 4,000 graduate and undergraduate students, earning consistent recognition for both teaching excellence and the rigor of his courses. In the past five years, he has provided valuable leadership to the undergraduate program, currently chairing the department’s Undergraduate Program Committee, which assists in assessing and updating the curriculum. In the past six years, Wickersham transformed from teaching small classes of graduate students and honors undergraduates to teaching what is likely the largest animal nutrition course ever taught in the U.S., 330 students in the fall of 2022. Remarkably, he knows his students as individuals. He also mentors other educators in their teaching and manages to do so while maintaining an active research program.
Keara O’Reilly received the Graduate Student Teaching Award. O’Reilly has served as a teaching assistant in the Department of Animal Science for nine semesters while pursuing her doctoral studies. She is a passionate and committed teacher. Keara has been actively involved in managing the learning platforms and course content and assisting in developing assignments. For example, ANSC 318 requires students to develop and present a proposed feeding program to a hypothetical client for a specific livestock species. O’Reilly spends many hours each semester meeting with student groups individually. Not only does she ensure her students understand the course material, but she also helps new graduate teaching assistants successfully teach their labs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she was essential for transitioning the course into an online format.
Marco Palma, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and AgriLife Research, received the Research Award. Since joining the department in 2006, Palma has established a research program that is a rigorous blend of theory-based methodological developments and applied problem-solving research. His program investigates the driving forces behind how people choose food and agriculture products, and his lab also works to develop new methodologies for addressing these questions. Nominators say Palma is energetic and highly productive. He is a leading expert in neuroeconomics, bringing neuroeconomics capabilities to Texas A&M by developing what one nominator calls “… the most sophisticated bio-oriented multiperson lab in the world.” Particularly significant has been Palma’s evaluation of existing and emerging technologies and the impact of government, farm and food policy on the production and consumption of food and agricultural products.
Susie Dai, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology and AgriLife Research, was presented the Early Career Research Award. Dai has been extremely successful in securing grant funding, with over $4 million directed to her programs. That is a testament to her creativity and ability, as well as the importance of her work. One of her findings is a way to use lignin from wood chips and corn stalks to develop biofuels that can serve as renewable replacements or supplements for fossil fuels. Another advance is a way to use lignin to produce biodegradable plastics. Projects such as these require collaboration among experts in different disciplines, and the innovations could go a long way toward cleaning up the environment. These advances get us closer to reducing pollution from plastics, rendering renewable fuels economical to produce and reducing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Catherine Danmaigona Clement, doctoral candidate in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, was the Graduate Student Research Award recipient. Clement began her graduate work in the department in September 2018 and passed her preliminary qualifying exams in April 2021. She works with a collaboration of plant breeders, geneticists and pathologists to address an emerging threat for cotton, the No. 1 agricultural crop in Texas. That threat is fusarium wilt of cotton race 4, better known as FOV4. While her primary research skill is in laboratory genomics, she is just as comfortable with applied research in the field. Her accomplishments include identifying upland cotton lines resistant to FOV4 via greenhouse, lab and field screenings; optimizing a fast and efficient method to screen for FOV4 resistance; and characterizing 72 fusarium field isolates.
Extension Education Awards
Lizabeth Gresham, AgriLife Extension family and community health agent for Potter County, was presented the County Agent Award. Gresham is full of energy and passion for creating positive impacts in the communities she serves. She thrives at building relations with local agencies and partners, identifies learning opportunities for residents of all ages, and works tirelessly to prepare and deliver programs to meet the needs of those she serves. Throughout her career with AgriLife Extension, Lizabeth has implemented and been recognized for her programming efforts at the local, district, state and national levels. In addition to all the contributions she has made through youth and adult programming, positive impacts among diverse and limited-resource residents, and the community partnerships formed and nurtured, she has established herself as a leader within AgriLife Extension, in Potter County and across the state.
Tony Provin, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension soil chemist and professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, and director of the Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory, received the Extension Specialist or Program Specialist Award. During his 26‐year career, Provin has addressed numerous agronomic, urban and environmental issues, thereby improving both sustainability and economics for Texans. Data collected during soil testing campaigns that Provin supports through county agents has documented the potential increase in income of approximately $65 per acre when proper fertilization is used to address nutrient deficiencies. The very nature of Provin’s position results in his addressing the needs of multiple sectors across many industries. The immeasurable impacts of his program include the support provided to county agents, specialists, researchers and other state agencies, all of whom benefited immensely from his knowledge, mentoring and overall assistance in projects and issues to address the needs of fellow Texans.
Guy Sheppard, DVM, a veterinarian diagnostician with TVMDL, was awarded the Diagnostic Services Award. Sheppard brings an invaluable set of skills and knowledge derived from a career dedicated to service. He joined the agency as a veterinary diagnostician in 2016 and is a liaison between the laboratory staff and agency clients, many of whom are also veterinarians. He assists clients in selecting the right diagnostic tests and in interpreting the test results. His role requires an in-depth understanding of the complexities and challenges the clients face in attending to the animals in their care. As a former practicing veterinarian, Sheppard relates perfectly to these challenges. He fields hundreds of phone calls regarding new submissions and follows up on previous conversations. No matter the number of times he’s talked to a client, Sheppard is patient and helpful to everyone.
Jason Ellis, Texas A&M Forest Service district forester, Jacksonville, earned the Public Service in Forestry Award. Ellis embodies the values of the Texas A&M Forest Service and public service daily in his work with landowners, partners and foresters. As a district forester, Ellis has excelled in assisting private landowners in sustainably managing their forestlands in the Jacksonville District, which comprises three counties on the western fringe of the Texas piney woods. Not only does he meet with landowners and provide them with valuable technical assistance, but he also provides them with a working demonstration of sustainable management on the I.D. Fairchild State Forest. Ellis is considered by both landowners and his peers to be not only a technical expert, but also an excellent practitioner of the principles he recommends.
Johnny Bible, farm research service manager at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Station at Bushland, received the Special Services Award. The Bushland station has research programs in plant breeding, plant physiology, plant pathology, entomology and animal sciences, as well as AgriLife Extension agronomy trials. In addition, the Bushland station has experimental fields situated on about 300 acres at four different locations with 10 separate wells. Bible assists each program in field operations of various crops. He is responsible for making sure that the experimental fields are irrigated when needed without interruption. With a degree in mechanized agriculture, he can fix problems on the spot. In fact, a major irrigation pipe burst this summer, threatening to affect several ongoing experiments. Thanks to Bible’s expertise and dedication, the pipe was fixed without major consequences.
Rodney Lemburg, program coordinator in the Operations Department of TVMDL, was presented the Business and Operational Staff Award. Lemburg is a respected, indispensable employee of the agency, keeping the facilities ready for use each day and providing excellent service and support to all aspects of the operation of TVMDL. He has demonstrated extraordinary initiative and proactively monitors a very sophisticated 93,000-square-foot facility with detailed building automation control systems. Often, he’s addressing a problem before anyone even notices there’s an issue. He is known to stay up late at night watching the agency’s thermal tissue digester operations to ensure a successful discharge the next day. His initiative is the embodiment of excellence. His work unmistakably aligns with the core value of service — unsung efforts performed behind the scenes to ensure the agency can support staff performing veterinary diagnostic testing for clients.
Kelsey Agnew, administrator and office manager in the Texas A&M Vice Chancellor’s Office, received the Office and Administrative Staff Award. Agnew handles the nearly insurmountable task of keeping the vice chancellor and dean informed, prepared and moving. She is responsible for numerous duties and performs complex administrative tasks while managing the Vice Chancellor’s support staff. Agnew also liaises with other university and Texas A&M University System offices for the benefit of Texas A&M AgriLife and has created a strong network of contacts with other executive assistants to keep channels of communication open across the campus and the system. One of her most incredible accomplishments is navigating and supporting three different vice chancellor and deans over the last 12 months. Agnew was able to adjust to each and manage ever-changing expectations and demands, providing the highest level of service. Her skill set and willingness to roll up her sleeves and get the work done made an incredible difference in these transitions.
Scott Vajdak, a senior information technology professional in Area 2 of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, earned the AgriLife Services Staff Award. Vajdak’s work concerns information technology, IT, in Area 2, which consists of the Departments of Biochemistry and Biophysics, Plant Pathology and Microbiology, Horticultural Sciences, Nutrition, and Range, Wildlife and Fisheries Management, as well as Centeq, HortTREC and the Grazing Animal Nutrition Labs. Vajdak has been instrumental in completing major IT projects, from property inventories and laboratory setups to full domain migrations. He triages each employee or student’s specific issue and acts promptly to provide critical information, recommendations or solutions. He has closed out over 1,500 trouble tickets since Texas A&M AgriLife began using the new ticketing system, but he has handled thousands of others over his tenure with the College, often performing beyond the scope of his assigned duties.
Shannon Baker, senior research associate at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Amarillo, received the Technical and Programmatic Staff Award. A key member of the wheat breeding program in Amarillo, Baker performs every task in the pipeline: cross-pollinating plants in the greenhouse, maintaining seed, planting, harvesting, taking field notes, supervising technical staff, importing and exporting seed, managing data, selecting advancements and leading unmanned aerial systems as a licensed drone operator. Managing the large dataset generated by the breeding program is another part of Baker’s role within the wheat program. She also works very closely with AgriLife Extension agronomists coordinating the Uniform Variety Trials. She excels in direct communication and collaboration with others. Thus, she is the “go-to person” for coordinating multidisciplinary trials with the wheat genetics, crop physiology and agronomy programs at Amarillo, as well as the statewide small grains research and AgriLife Extension teams.
International Involvement Award
Reinaldo Cooke, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Animal Science, was presented the International Involvement Award. The world is seeing a growing demand for beef and the need for enhanced efficiency in cattle production. To address these issues, Cooke has established an academic program that develops and disseminates management systems to improve U.S. and international beef systems. He has trained cattle producers, industry professionals and government officials in Russia, Italy, France, Canada, Germany, Romania, Panama, Mexico, Denmark, Brazil and Australia. In all his global endeavors, Cooke represents the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Department of Animal Sciences and AgriLife Research with distinction. The bottom line, his nominators say, is he has established an outstanding international program with major relevance to beef cattle production across the planet — a true example of excellence in international impact and involvement.
Julio Bernal, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Entomology, received the Diversity Award. Bernal has passionately worked to enhance diversity at Texas A&M. Among other accomplishments, he developed a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture-funded program to train dozens of underrepresented students in STEM. With two other faculty members, he leads this grant-funded program, titled “Diversity in Entomology: Research Experiences for Students from Texas Hispanic Serving Institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Each year until 2026, the competitive program will provide cohorts of 45 undergraduates from underrepresented communities with a paid 10-week research and education experience. Bernal also serves on his home department’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee as well as on the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Inclusive Excellence Committee.
G. Cliff Lamb, Ph.D., AgriLife Research director, Bryan-College Station, was the recipient of the Administration Award. Lamb started his role as AgriLife Research director in January 2022. Prior to his current appointment, he served as head of the Department of Animal Science and, simultaneously, as interim department head of the Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management. He believes that being an effective leader means aligning, motivating and inspiring people to believe in a vision and advance it. He has outlined attainable goals and provided the academic units, research centers, and faculty and staff the resources to accomplish goals, and he has hired people who believe in the mission and vision to meet those goals. Most importantly, he has demonstrated leadership by building trust and strong relationships with internal and external stakeholders.
Team Collaboration Awards
The Ranchers Leasing Workshop Team earned the Team Collaboration Award. Team members include Department of Agricultural Economics personnel Tiffany Lashmet, J.D., associate professor and AgriLife Extension agricultural law specialist, Amarillo; Greg Kaase, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension agricultural economist and risk management specialist, and Emmy Kiphen, program specialist, both of Bryan-College Station; and Lacrecia Garza, administrative associate, Amarillo.
When the Ranchers Leasing Workshop Team set out to draft a handbook and design workshop content to educate both landowners and lessees about the legal and economic issues related to grazing, hunting and livestock leases in 2016, they could not have imagined the level of success this program would achieve. To date, over 1,300 Texans have participated in the 23 Ranchers Leasing Workshops held across the state, and countless others have benefited from the information in the Ranchers Agricultural Leasing Handbook. The group has now created an online course as well. Thus far, over 1.56 million acres have been represented by attendees at the Ranchers Leasing Workshop events. The Ranchers Leasing Workshop Team has clearly identified important, timely and relevant topics that interest Texas landowners and agricultural producers.
The Sustainable Southwest Beef Project was named the recipient of the Partnership Award. The partnership is a combination of efforts of Brent Auvermann, Ph.D., professor and Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center director, and Vinícius Gouvêa, Ph.D., AgriLife Research beef nutritionist and assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science, both in Amarillo; Glenn Duff, professor of animal science and superintendent, New Mexico State University Clayton Livestock Research Center; Jean Steiner, senior science coordinator, New Mexico State University Department of Animal and Range Sciences; Sheri Spiegal, Ph.D., range management specialist, and Rick Estell, Ph.D., lead scientist, USDA-Agricultural Research Service Jornada Experimental Range, Las Cruces, New Mexico. Other entities involved in the partnership include the USDA-ARS Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory, Mandan, North Dakota; Texas A&M University; West Texas A&M University, Canyon; Utah State University, Logan, Utah; Evergreen Ranching and Livestock LLC, Custer, South Dakota; and Rancho Corte Madera Inc., San Diego, California.
A changing climate requires adaptation to ranching. To enhance ranch and rangeland resilience in the southwestern U.S., the Sustainable Southwest Beef team is developing and delivering new technologies and education. The project engages ranchers, educators and students in collaborative research and extension to develop a decision-support dashboard and train the next generation of researchers and producers. The project’s goal is to improve beef production efficiency by identifying socioeconomic and environmental trade-offs associated with heritage cattle genetics, precision ranching and various supply chain options, including feedlot finishing. The project compares heritage Raramuri Criollo and conventionally used desert-adapted cattle in studies on profitability, input efficiency, ecosystem effects, feed yard performance, and carcass and meat quality.
Photos of the award recipients will be available online at https://tx.ag/VCAwards2023.