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NMSU Migrant Scholar Program Spotlights Chile Research

LAS CRUCES - Last summer, Leonel Caro's exposure to agriculture consisted largely of chopping weeds in a sweltering eastern New Mexico cotton field. This summer, the 19-year-old Hagerman native is using genetic engineering tools to improve chile plants in one of New Mexico State University's most advanced laboratories.

Suman Bagga, a science specialist with New Mexico State University's agronomy and horticulture department, leads Leonel Caro, foreground, through the results of a genetic engineering experiment on chile. Caro and nine other students from migrant families are spending the summer in a 10-week program called ASSURED, which is short for Agricultural Science Summer Undergraduate Research Education and Development program. (07/29/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

Scientists in the Skeen Hall lab are laying the foundation for new chile varieties.

"This has been so interesting," said Caro, a freshman computer science major at NMSU. "I'm the first one in my family to go to college. That opportunity is going to allow me to break out of a farm labor cycle and work in a technology field."

Caro's attempts to improve peppers have given him a new perspective on agriculture beyond cows and crops.

"Leonel is really getting good hands-on experience in science of agriculture," said Champa Sengupta-Gopalan, an NMSU molecular biology professor who is mentoring Caro as part of a 10-week program called ASSURED, which is short for Agricultural Science Summer Undergraduate Research Education and Development program.

The program is supported through a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Caro is one of 10 students from migrant families spending the summer in Las Cruces experiencing an agricultural science career through chile research. Participants are high school students entering college this fall, or university freshmen or sophomores.

The students are U.S. citizens from first- or second-generation migrant families anywhere in the United States. "Our goal is to introduce these students with migrant backgrounds to the agricultural research process and to broaden their interest in scientific studies," said Danise Coon, assistant director of NMSU's Chile Pepper Institute.

Other students in the program this summer include Alejandra Trejo, Deming; Yesenia Ramirez, Deming; Maria Lizet Torres, Deming; Joseph Hernandez, Animas; Abelardo Rodriguez, Salem; Abelardo Rodriguez, Salem; Jesus Rodriguez, Salem; Mauro Alvarado, Salem; Celeste Quezada, Mesilla Park; and Jose De Santiago, Sunland Park.

NMSU's Chile Pepper Institute is one of the world's leading research centers for chile, said Paul Bosland, a chile breeder with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station and the institute's director.

Among the most tangible benefit of the program is the firsthand experience the students gain from NMSU's genetic breeding and variety development efforts, as well as disease and insect control methods, Bosland said. In addition, the students learn how new chile varieties are developed, and study the university's chile demonstration garden, which has more than 150 varieties, he said.

The chile industry contributes about $400 million annually to the local economy, including $300 million worth of peppers and processed goods and about $100 million that growers pump into local businesses for supplies and inputs, said Rhonda Skaggs, an agricultural economics professor at NMSU.

During the summer session, students are paired with NMSU faculty members for one-on-one instruction, in addition to daily guidance from Coon and graduate students in NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics.

"This is our third summer doing the ASSURED program, and in the time we've made a number of refinements to improve the workshops and lectures," Coon said.

Students spend 20 to 30 hours a week working on an agricultural research project and 10 to 15 hours in the classroom, she said. At the end of the 10-week session, which runs from May 30-Aug. 5, students write a research paper, make an oral presentation and complete a scientific poster about their results.

Two students will continue their agricultural studies after the ASSURED session, receiving work-study positions for the fall and spring semesters in NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics.

"Past experience has shown us that even though many of our ASSURED students don't have deep backgrounds in science, they do benefit from the experience," Coon said. "Several have gone on to majors in agricultural and science fields."