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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU Scientists Train Tomorrow's Researchers

LAS CRUCES -- Nobody is born knowing how to use a powerful microscope, an ultra centrifuge or a computer-aided design program. With the right training, some people really take to such high-tech equipment. They become our plant pathologists, microbiologists and landscape designers.


But they first have to develop "good hands," said Mary O'Connell, a plant geneticist with New Mexico State University.

"You can't get a research job without a letter of recommendation that says you have 'good hands' -- that you can make solutions correctly, keep an organized lab bench, and produce accurate, neat data."

Students of O'Connell's lab in Gerald Thomas Hall have gone on to medical and engineering schools. One graduate student is a staff scientist at the Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands. Another is at the Institute for Genomic Research in Maryland.

"We really are a central training ground. The hands and labor we train are not just for the agricultural community but for all kinds of disciplines," she said.

Although some people have a natural grace for laboratory work, O'Connell said, they still have to take laboratory classes and learn by watching and practicing. "The more opportunity students have for laboratory work, the better they do."

Students who take plant pathologist Craig Liddell's laboratory courses work in a "wet lab" complete with sinks, drains, and gas and air sources. Among other techniques, they learn how to stain slides for viewing under microscopes.

"Working in the lab is the only way for students to get hands-on experience," he said. "Bachelor's and master's degree graduates are more employable because they have hands-on experience as part of their education."

Norm Lownds, a horticulturist, said companies that employ landscape designers are looking for graduates who have experience using computer-aided design programs. "I can't do justice to a design course without giving students exposure to the computers."

One 1994 landscape horticulture graduate, David Flores, said experience with computers and up-to-date design programs is invaluable in his career. Flores is working as a landscape architect intern for the City of Las Cruces.

"You'll definitely need that experience, especially for jobs with the state, city or county," he said. Flores has put his experience to work designing landscapes and irrigation systems for the city's parks.

While professors with NMSU's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences know how important it is for students to learn in state-of-the-art facilities, they're faced with a real space crunch on campus. As a whole, NMSU has the least building space per student among the state's six four-year schools.

Scientists like O'Connell have had to make room in their research laboratories for teaching. She said that's not optimum for the students or the research.

"Teaching laboratories require the same instruments that are found in research laboratories but not at the same quality," she said. "Students need to learn their way around the lab and be able to make mistakes. But I have one of only two ultra centrifuges on campus, and I get a little nervous when students are practicing with it -- I don't have a back up."

Help with the space crunch would come with the new Center for Sustainable Development of Arid Lands, a building planned for the west end of campus. The center would contain teaching laboratories, research facilities and more classrooms. Plans include more than 48,000 square feet for teaching space and about 13,000 for research laboratories.

Building of the center depends on passage of Bond Issue B on the Nov. 5 ballot. Bond Issue B contains $9.4 million for the proposed building, adding to $11 million in federal matching funds already allocated.

"We are full. Our labs are in constant use all day -- there is no down time," O'Connell said. "The new building would offer more teaching space to train our students."