Jul 24, 2019
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Photo courtesy of Dr. Sharon Benes Caio Diaz, an undergraduate research intern from Brazil, helps a graduate student gather data for their thesis research on conservation agriculture systems for cotton production.

Collegian Graduate Series: Fresno State master’s program in plant science is equipping some students to feed the world

Photo courtesy of Dr. Sharon Benes Caio Diaz, an undergraduate research intern from Brazil, helps a graduate student gather data for their thesis research on conservation agriculture systems for cotton production.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Sharon Benes
Caio Diaz, an undergraduate research intern from Brazil, helps a graduate student gather data for their thesis research on conservation agriculture systems for cotton production.

Rama Paudel, a Fresno State plant science graduate student, said she originally looked at Fresno State’s master’s program in plant science with hopes of receiving a scholarship.

From Nepal, Paudel said education, especially international graduate tuition, is difficult to afford.

Nearing the end of her time at Fresno State through course work and her thesis research, Paudel said she now looks at agriculture through different eyes. It was after attending seminars in her graduate program, Paudel said, she first developed ideas about a global agriculture system.

She said now her aim is to feed the world.

“Billions of people are dying due to hunger, so we need to take care of these things,” Paudel said. “And so I would say agriculture is basically an applied social science, so our scientific concept, our scientific innovations should be translated into the benefit of society, and that would create a healthy life and a healthy world.”

Dr. Sharon Benes, a plant science department professor and graduate program adviser, said when looking at applicants for the plant science graduate program, she looks for applicants like Paudel: students who will be committed.

“Plant science research, you can’t do it Tuesday night at 11 p.m., just get on the computer and work till 3 a.m. in the morning,” Benes said. “Well, you can do that with your data analysis, but you need time.

“The types of research people do, we have a lot of work that is field research; sometimes greenhouse work.”

Benes said the 30-unit program is relatively small—comprised of around 22 students and only seven or eight faculty—and consists of classes, seminars, fieldwork and a six-unit thesis, which students work on throughout their time at Fresno State.

Although the program has full-time students straight from their undergraduate degrees, Benes said it is committed to serving working students.

“Those, a lot of times, are people who have a full-time job, and sometimes even a family and children,” Benes said. “Not as common, but some have had children, and they realize oftentimes for career advancement they need a master’s degree.

“So they take the classes, and then the real challenge for them is finding the times to do the thesis research.”

Through assistantships with labs like the USDA-ARS research lab in Parlier, Benes said students are able to work and hopefully put some of that paid work toward their master’s thesis: through special arrangements or deals to use work facilities on their off-time.

Benes said Fresno State’s program also works with students, both international and domestic, who can’t afford tuition. She said the program is usually awarded one or two Harvey-Jordan Graduate Fellowships, which provide receiving students with more than $18,000 a year.

“So that’s a big issue for us,” Benes said. “We have to continue to work to get funding to have, well, to have the best students that we can and have students that are committed to the program but also that have the time to do high-quality research.”

If students can’t find funding, Benes said professors who receive research grants sometimes pay students to help conduct research.

Navreet Mahal is one of these students.

Having completed her Bachelors of Science in India, Mahal said her professors there encouraged students to look for master’s programs outside of the Indian state where she lived.

So that is what Mahal said she did, except she took it a step further. Mahal looked for master’s programs outside her country.

“If we study at one place, we get knowledge of that place only,” her professors told Mahal. “If we go to some other place, we gather more information; they wanted us to go outside, to some other university.

“Many students went to some other states, but I was just thinking outside of India.”

After contacting Benes, she introduced Mahal to another professor, and Mahal said she was hired as one of his assistants.

“I assist Dr. Dave [Goorahoo] with his research, with his different projects as a research assistant and also as a teaching assistant, and he is providing me funds to continue my education,” Mahal said.

Ultimately, Mahal said she wants to continue on with a doctorate and someday work at a university: researching and teaching.

Mahal’s current study focuses on the environmental effects of a certain gas emitted from agricultural soils.

“It’s a greenhouse gas, and it’s almost 300 times more strong than carbon dioxide for causing this global warming of our environment,” Mahal said. “So I’m working on that, like how much NO [nitrous oxide] is emitted from our agriculture fields and how we can control these emissions.”

Along with tracks for students wanting to work in universities, Benes said the program is also one of a number of colleges in the U.S. with a “Master’s International” option, which allows students to take one year of course work and then join the Peace Corps.

Benes said up to six units of their Peace Corps work could be counted toward their degrees, depending on the type of work they did.

“It helps people who want to go into the Peace Corps but kind of also want to get a master’s, and they don’t want to have to do the Peace Corps and then come back and start,” Benes said. “So this way they can, and, in a certain sense, it would also better prepare the Peace Corps volunteers.”

Benes said agriculture has been attractive to students with no agriculture background because of its job opportunities in times of economic recession.

Although Fresno’s graduate program in plant science is open to students with degrees in other areas, Benes said they must take a number of prerequisites–statistics, soils, plant health, physical science and life science–to provide them with an adequate foundation for graduate-level coursework.

“So we’re going to teach them an upper, a graduate level, statistics course, well they had to have had statistics as an undergraduate, specifically statistics, because when they do their research and they get the data, they have to analyze the statistics,” Benes said.

At the end of their master’s work, Benes said students present the thesis they worked on throughout the program.

“That makes you feel real good,” Benes said. “To see them get up there and be able to see them confident and present, really, what in many cases was two years of work.”

Students interested in the master’s program in plant science at Fresno State can email Benes at sbenes@csufresno.edu or call 559-278-2255. For more information on the program, students can visit the plant science department’s page http://www.fresnostate.edu/jcast/plantsci/index.html. The graduate program link can be found under “Degrees & Programs” and then “Graduate Program.”

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