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Students Conduct Ag Tech Research on Campus for USDA Internships

July 21, 2021
Professor Colleen Naughton with the 2021 FACTS Summer Bridge Program students.
Professor Colleen Naughton with the 2021 FACTS Summer Bridge Program students.

While many are preparing to head off to college after an unprecedented year, a handful of students are already on UC Merced’s campus and working away in research labs. They’re part of the inaugural FACTS Bridge Program, a way for first-year and transfer students to get a head start on research and more.

The FACTS Bridge Program is designed to immerse students in agricultural science and research. It stands for San Joaquin Valley Food and Agriculture Cyberinformatics Tools and Science. The six-week summer program, funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, allows students to work with faculty mentors in a focused environment, introducing students to the world of research in agricultural science and technology.

“The program is meeting my expectations so far,” said civil and environmental engineering Professor Colleen Naughton , who is leading the program. “We had a workshop yesterday and students shared their research experiences, and they are already working in the labs and in the field with just two full days of research since orientation.”

Recruiting for the FACTS program began during the pandemic, mainly through email and webinars, with the help of Student Affairs, External Relations, the School of Engineering, and the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Banatao Institute. Of 71 applicants, 12 students were selected using a carefully designed rubric to reduce implicit bias.

“The number of applicants demonstrates the demand for these type of bridge programs for incoming students that include research,” Naughton said.

Professor Colleen Naughton instructs the students on campus.
Professor Colleen Naughton instructs the students on campus.

As part of the internship, students are visiting local agricultural operations, such as a local dairy, Hilmar Cheese Company and the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier. The goal is for them to build practical experience and their understanding of the region’s agricultural context for their research and future careers. They also will have lab safety trainings, learn about graduate school opportunities and practice research writing techniques, among other activities. The hope is that these hands-on educational experiences will help lead to a well-prepared and modern workforce that can fill expected gaps in the country’s food, agriculture and related industries.

The training goes beyond research and academics. The bridge program provides crucial training in life skills such as budgeting, studying and stress management, all of which will help them succeed at the university.

“My hopes and goals for before the program ends are to get the students some experience and comfort with research and take away some good university/life skills we can integrate from the workshops,” Naughton said. “I hope to motivate them to pursue agricultural careers and research after the program, because we will need them to help solve the pressing challenges we face currently and in the future with food insecurity, environmental degradation and destruction, and climate change.”

The FACTS Bridge Program was put together by CITRIS and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources in collaboration with faculty from the School of Natural Sciences, School of Engineering and the Department of Public Health. The program will run from 2021-2024. Students interested in learning more can visit the CITRIS website.