Graduate and Professional Students Research Spotlight

The Research and Grants Committee of the GPSG presents the Research Spotlight, where we highlight the research carried out by our fellow graduate and professional students.

Spotlights from the 2019-2020 are:

Serena Smith
MS Candidate, Oceanography, College of Geosciences

Serena Smith will graduate in May with a Master of Science (MS) degree in Oceanography from Texas A&M’s College of Geosciences. Oceanography is the study of the ocean’s chemical, biological, physical, and geological processes. As a carbonate chemist, Serena is interested in how anthropogenic (human-induced) carbon dioxide decreases the pH of seawater. She also observes how increased oceanic acidity hampers the ability of corals and oysters to grow properly.

One of Serena’s research projects involved studying how Hurricane Harvey affected carbonate chemistry in the Texas shelf and the Flower Garden Banks Marine Sanctuary, a protected coral reef habitat in the Gulf of Mexico. Serena often takes research cruises to the Flower Garden Banks as well as Galveston Bay to collect discrete water samples. Serena takes these samples back to her lab and analyzes them using the Versatile Instrument for the Determination of Total inorganic carbon and titration Alkalinity (VINDTA). The machine measures total alkalinity (the buffering capacity of seawater) and dissolved inorganic carbon, which Serena can then use to calculate pH, partial CO2 pressure, and aragonite saturation state (the thermodynamic tendency of a mineral to either dissolve or precipitate).

Serena received a spring travel award from the Graduate & Professional Student Government. The award helped her offset the costs of traveling to San Diego, California for the 2020 Ocean Science Meeting. The conference provided her an abundance of opportunities to network with experts in her field, including authors of papers she frequently cites. Serena was excited to hear their insights about her research and the possible directions it could take. Additionally, Serena learned new science and research techniques and also practiced sharing her own research, which has made her feel more prepared for her thesis defense in May.

Serena’s life is full of interesting aquatic experiences. She acquired her divemaster certification and also worked as a diver at SeaWorld. During one of her dives, she was bitten by an octopus. On another excursion, she dove deep into a cavern and woke a bunch of sea turtles who were sleeping inside. Serena says some of her best nights of sleep have been on boats.

Italo Balbo Zecca
Veterinary Integrative Biosciences

Italo Zecca graduated with his PhD in May 2019. As a student of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences, Italo was drawn to his program’s innovative and interdisciplinary teaching, as well as its promotion of the One Health concept: the synergy of animal, human, and environmental sciences.

Italo currently works on epidemiological vector-borne disease research on human, domestic animal, and wildlife populations near the US-Mexico TX border. His research also focuses on producing culturally competent One Health-centered education for Hispanic and underserved communities at risk. In the future, Italo hopes to enter the world of academia and continue research to assess neglected tropical diseases and develop efficient interventions.

Italo received a travel award from the Graduate & Professional Student Government in fall 2018, which he used to travel to the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. He says his ASTMH trip was an amazing opportunity to learn and network with professionals in his field and beyond. His future research was shaped and expanded by the knowledge he gained and the people he interacted with.

An interesting fact about Italo is that he has a phlebotomy superpower where he can successfully take blood samples from animals of all sizes—including camels, tiny birds, rodents, and everything in between!

Lindsey Coleman
MS Graduate, Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communications, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Lindsey Coleman graduated in Spring 2019. As a student of Agricultural Leadership, Lindsey Coleman was interested in the agricultural development of developing countries, particularly with regards to food security. Lindsey believes that food security is crucial to healthy economies, national security, and regional stability.

One of Lindsey’s research projects focused on the capital implications of providing goats to 26 Ugandan farmers. The goats, given to the farmers by the Heffer International NGO Project, allowed them to generate financial capital through the milk and fertilizer the goats produced. The farmers also generated social capital by connecting with other farmers and becoming resources for their community members. Lindsey’s surveys of the farmers over the project’s two years demonstrated a measurable increase in their overall wellbeing.  

When Lindsey received her travel award from the Graduate & Professional Student Government in the spring of 2019, she used it to offset the costs of attending the Tobego Association for International Agricultural Extension Education Conference in Trinidad. There, she presented her research alongside students from other internationally acclaimed agricultural schools. 

She is a Government Relations Intern with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, where she serves on the Food and Agriculture Team. There she advocates for funding and projects surrounding the Global Food Security Act and USAID’s Feed the Future initiative.

Something interesting about Lindsey is that, the year after receiving her undergraduate degree, she got involved with Illini 4000, a charity that raises money for cancer research. She participated in a $100,000 fundraising effort by helping them write letters, host events, and host bake sales. Even more impressive, she embarked on a 4,000-mile bike ride from New York to California—interviewing different survivors, caretakers, and family members along the way. 

Philip Shults
Department of Entomology

Phillip Shults is set to graduate in May 2021. As a student of entomology, Phillip studies insects and how they can be used to study evolution, diversity, crop production, medicine, and more. Phillip discovered his passion for entomology while studying biology as an undergrad. He was always passionate about science, but his first entomology class helped him discover the many applied aspects of biology and the different problems they could solve. Recognizing the strength of Texas A&M’s entomology program, Phillip wasted no time pursuing his PhD in Aggieland.

Phillip’s research focuses on biting midges, tiny flies that transmit diseases to livestock and wildlife. Two such diseases include bluetongue and epizootic hemorrhagic disease, which primarily affect white tail deer. White tail deer are particularly susceptible to these diseases due to their confinement on breeding farms throughout the US. Phillip uses population genetics to help us understand how the flies migrate to new areas and make risk assessments accordingly. For example, if we know that midges in Texas are more likely to breed and move with midges from Louisiana and not Oklahoma—disease outbreaks in Texas would be more likely to spread to Louisiana instead of Oklahoma.  

Phillip received a travel award from the Graduate & Professional Student Government in fall 2019. The award helped him offset the costs of traveling to San Juan, Puerto Rico for the Society for Vector Ecology conference. The conference focuses on insects of public health importance—any insects that vector pathogens. Phillip organized a symposium at the conference specifically for people studying biting midges, which gave him more exposure in the biting midge community and helped him form important collaborations within it. 

After graduation, Phillip is considering many avenues. He would love to continue studying biting midges or working as a population geneticist, but he is also open to more broad research endeavors. He is also open to exploring academia, working for the government as a researcher, or taking on a postdoctoral position. 

Grace Tsai
PhD Student, Nautical Archaeology Program, College of Liberal Arts

As a student of nautical archaeology, Grace is interested in studying the histories of humans at sea and their interactions with the water. In particular, Grace’s research concerns the history of food on ships—how it tasted, how it was preserved, and how the seafarers of yore survived on it.

One of Grace’s contributions to her field was the Ship Biscuit & Salted Beef Research Project (SBSB), in which she and her team recreated seafaring foods from the 17th century and analyzed their nutritional and microbial makeups. The meat, biscuits, and alcohol were all prepared using original recipes and techniques, providing a unique glimpse at the diets of long-gone adventurers.

When Grace received her travel award from the Graduate & Professional Student Government in the fall of 2018, she was able to travel to Barcelona, Spain to attend the 24th Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists. There, she networked and furthered her knowledge of food in colonial and imperial contexts. Grace later had the opportunity to present her SBSB research at the nearby III International Congress on the Anthropology of Salt, which was conveniently held a few days after the conference. 

An inspiring fact about Grace is that, at the age of 22, she managed to summit the highest mountain in Africa. Towering at 16,000 feet above sea level, Mount Kilimanjaro is no easy walk, and even though Grace had little hiking experience, she met the challenge head-first and conquered it. Not only did she cross Kilimanjaro off her bucket list, but she also gained an incredible gap-year story. 

Grace is one year away from her PhD and, in addition to finishing her dissertation, plans to continue researching the microbiological qualities of food on ships, especially in relation to the hygiene hypothesis (“what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”). Check out the @SBSBResearch Facebook page to get the latest on Grace’s projects.

Shea Roy

MPH, Health Policy & Management, School of Public Health

In May 2020, Shea Roy will graduate with a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree concentrated in Health Policy & Management from Texas A&M’s School of Public Health. The health policy facet of her concentration involves assessing communities’ health needs and determining how to address them,  which could deal with topics like nutrition, water fluoridation, or curtailing substance abuse. The other side of her concentration, health management, teaches strategies for managing people and developing health systems across sectors. Originally from Kansas, Shea Roy chose Texas A&M for graduate school in part because she is a fluent speaker of Spanish and wanted to work with Texas’s Hispanic population. 

Shea conducts her research at the Center for Community Health Development within the School of Public Health. The center operates the National Community Health Worker Training Center, which trains people to become health liaisons within their communities. These Community Health Workers, called CHWs or promotoras in Spanish, work predominately with Latina populations. Upon completion of the training, CHWs can pursue further specialized training in topics like tobacco cessation or cancer survivorship. Shea and her team develop these curriculum trainings by thoroughly researching public health concerns and determining the best practices for addressing them. Shea also uses her bilingual talents to translate health documents from English to Spanish.   

Something unique about Shea is that she is an identical twin. She and her sister, a Spanish teacher in Wichita, Kansas, were inseparable until they went to college. Her sister was a huge motivator in Shea’s learning of Spanish, in part because they wanted to have secret conversations together in front of their parents. Even more interesting, Shea and her sister are mirror twins. That is, while they have the same features, some of them are opposites: Shea is lefthanded, but her twin is righthanded. 

Though Shea and her twin are currently several states apart, that may not be the case for long. When Shea graduates with her MPH this May, she intends to go back to Kansas. There, she will either enter the workforce and apply her experiences from TAMU and her internship with the March of Dimes, or she will continue her education by pursuing a PhD in Health Policy & Management. 

(To learn more about becoming a Community Health Worker, visit nchwtc.tamhsc.edu)