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Research connects students to opportunity, community

Summer projects provide YVC students with powerful chance to accelerate education, career aspirations

For Yakima Valley College students Alfred DonCarlos and Charlene Luna, this past summer meant starting their Tuesdays early in apricot and cherry orchards southwest of Yakima.

The pair were on the hunt for earwigs, a common pest in the region’s stone fruit orchards. One-by-one, DonCarlos and Luna would check a series of traps attached to the trunks of hundreds of trees to see how many earwigs have been collected.

“It’s been interesting to see what goes on in the fields besides the growing and the picking. I never thought earwigs could be beneficial so that’s pretty interesting they’re finding a new use for them.” – Alfred DonCarlos

Making their way through the rows of trees, the students call out the number of earwigs in each trap to YVC Agriculture Instructor Holly Ferguson, who carefully tracks the data. Each week, they repeated the process as part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) research project that’s studying the mass trapping of earwigs in stone fruit orchards. A second part of that project is investigating the potential to move captured earwigs into apple and pear orchards where they are beneficial because they prey on other common pests such as aphids and pear psylla.

DonCarlos and Luna are among more than 30 YVC students who gained hands-on research experience in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields during the summer of 2021. Working closely with YVC faculty in more than a dozen projects, these research interns benefit local communities and industries while also giving a boost to their future educational and career goals.

Research connects students to community needs

For DonCarlos, summer research opened his eyes to new opportunities in the agricultural industry, which annually contributes more than $1.2 billion to Yakima County’s economy.

“It’s been interesting to see what goes on in the fields besides the growing and the picking,” he said. “I never thought earwigs could be beneficial so that’s pretty interesting they’re finding a new use for them.”

Student with earwig trap

“This lab experience will be a valuable asset to have once I get into medical school, if I ever need to work in a lab or if I decide to pursue another career.” – Annette Figueroa

Instructor and student in lab
YVC instructor Shawn Teng with research intern.

With Yakima County being home to a diverse array of agricultural products and businesses, there are numerous opportunities for students to engage in research that can directly impact the lives of their neighbors.

Ferguson has mentored student research interns every year since 2017. This year’s project was funded by a Western Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education grant and the YVC interns are partnering with Washington State University PhD student Aldo Hanel and USDA-ARS Research Entomologist Rebecca Schmidt-Jeffris to carry out the research. Ferguson said giving students experience in the region’s agriculture industry pays significant dividends.

“It really connects them to the main employer here in Yakima County and all the agricultural opportunities we have here,” Ferguson said. She recalled one of her recent interns who took part in an undergraduate research project and later was hired by a local hop company as a result of the experience.

“Our local growers are really supportive of helping students learn about tree fruit and crops here in the [Yakima] Valley,” Ferguson said. “They learn about our students who are getting these valuable experiences and maybe recruit them for a job after they graduate.”

Erica Garcia of Sunnyside gained her first lab experience during the summer of 2021 as part of a project to analyze the persistence of pesticides during the winemaking process and develop more effective, accurate methods of measuring pesticides in wine.

The project is a good fit for Garcia, who’s interested in pursuing a career in environmental science.

“We can see the effects that pesticides are having on the world and that’s something really relevant in our community,” Garcia said. “This summer research is another way of working toward my interest in addressing pollution that’s impacting the environment.”

Projects provide students with practical lab and fieldwork experience

Nearly 200 YVC students have participated in STEM research since 2012, and faculty from YVC and Central Washington University recently published the results of a five-year observation of the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) partnership between the two institutions.

In the Council for Undergraduate Research journal article, they noted high transfer, graduation and continued enrollment rates for participants, along with a deeper firsthand knowledge of the scientific process. SURE is part of an ongoing effort to make STEM education more accessible to underserved communities said Audrey Huerta, co-author of the article and a CWU professor of geological sciences.

“Part of the challenge with a community college population is that life, job, and family can derail individuals from being able to continue,” Huerta said. “That’s one of the things that’s happening for those individuals who are really engaged in active learning. Providing hands-on experiences and opportunities to apply what they’ve learned really motivates them to stay on that educational pathway.”

Student and instructor in lab
Research intern Annette Figueroa with faculty member Aram Langhams in lab.

At the USDA-ARS Temperate Tree Fruit and Vegetable Research Lab in Wapato, research intern Annette Figueroa worked on a project to detect neuropeptides in codling moths. These pests frequently harm apple orchards and other fruit trees and Figueroa’s work with her YVC research mentor Aram Langhans was the first step in identifying possible targets for non-toxic insect control agents.

Through her work on the project, Figueroa picked up a number of practical lab skills such as the use of pipettes and doing polymerase chain reaction tests.

“This lab experience will be a valuable asset to have once I get into medical school, if I ever need to work in a lab or if I decide to pursue another career,” Figueroa said.

In addition to specific lab skills, summer research provides students with more general experience in solving unexpected problems, analyzing data and working well in a team.

“Students get to learn how the process of science is done — collecting data and working with other folks as part of a team,” Ferguson said. “You’re going to be doing that all the time in the workplace.”

Baylen Bean, who worked on the pesticides research project with Garcia, said learning how to use different machines to do gas chromatography and high pressure liquid chromatography as part of testing samples has been a big benefit, but just as helpful is understanding the patience necessary to do research.

“Researchers to come will have it a little bit easier as a result of what we’re doing,” Bean said. “I don’t know exactly where I’m going to go in my career, but this is a great resume builder.”

Luna, a Running Start student from Wapato High School, appreciated the opportunity through the earwig research project to both collect data in the field and then analyze it.

“I feel like this is a really good learning experience that I’m going to be able to use later on,” said Luna, who plans to pursue a career in chemical engineering. “We get to analyze the data we’ve been out here collecting ourselves and see what that information actually means.”