UNCW a Partner in Pilot Mentoring Network for Graduate Students

Friday, October 14, 2016

As part of a White House initiative to expand and diversify the agricultural workforce, faculty members at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have collaborated to develop a graduate-student mentoring network.

The purpose of the collaboration is twofold: to allow students who attend various quantitative genetics conferences to connect with one another and with presenters who can serve as mentors, and to help students build a professional network and learn about careers in sustainable agriculture and other fields. The partnership involves Ann Stapleton, associate professor of plant genetics at UNCW, and her counterparts at UW, Natalia De Leon, associate professor of agronomy, and Guilherme J.M. Rosa, professor of statistical genetics.

Stapleton was invited to the Washington, D.C. on Oct. 6 for the announcement of the America the Bountiful initiative by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Increasing the number of college graduates going into agriculture-related fields is one of the initiative’s goals.

The university collaboration will develop links across quantitative genetics conferences that will help students build networks of peers, mentors and potential employers. Quantitative genetics is the foundation of breeding for improved crop varieties and livestock.

The 5th International Conference on Quantitative Genetics (ICQG5), held in Madison, Wisconsin, in June, featured a mentoring program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and corporate donations. The funding allowed conference organizers to waive registration and other expenses for about 40 graduate students. This conference will be coordinated with the 2017 Quantitative Genetics and Genomics Gordon Research Seminar and Conference, which Stapleton is leading. The Gordon conference will be held Feb. 25-March 3, 2017, in Galveston, Texas.

“The connection will allow graduate students who can’t participate in both conferences to benefit from discussion, debate and career networking,” Stapleton said. “The network will be invaluable in building interest in agricultural research and encouraging discussion and research collaboration.”

This cross-institutional effort grew out of a desire to encourage student participants to build upon what they learn at these conferences by sharing information and engaging in discussion with peers, researchers and industry professionals. In that way, the federal and corporate funds that make it possible for graduate students to attend professional conferences help perpetuate new ideas, research and career exploration in the field of sustainable agriculture, Stapleton explained.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy sought examples of innovative efforts to advance research and education in agriculture and food science, especially those that encourage greater participation by students in STEM-related activities or support scientific inquiry. Stapleton and her UW colleagues believe having a broad network will encourage students in the genetics field to consider careers in agriculture and food science.

“In the past, interactions among students and faculty from different universities and disciplines were focused on one meeting at a time,” she explained. “Now we are integrating across multiple meetings and developing peer-to-peer and mentor-peer networks that roll across conferences. This provides a natural way for students to build their networks and learn more about their career options.”

-- Tricia Vance