UMD Supports Underrepresented Undergraduate Students through the Summer Opportunities in Agricultural Research and the Environment (SOARE) Program, Newly Funded by USDA-NIFA

Students spend 10 weeks exploring an original research question and learning the skills they need to carry them on to graduate school

Gabriela Mercado Rojas, SOARE program student from Puerto Rico, conducting research at the University of Maryland

Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg

August 25, 2021 Samantha Watters

This summer, underrepresented undergraduate students from across the state, country, and beyond were hosted by the University of Maryland (UMD) College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR) to experience the Summer Opportunities in Agricultural Research and the Environment (SOARE) program. With new funding from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA), this program has been expanded to a 10-week experiential learning opportunity, including hands-on research experience, professional development, and guidance to help students be successful in graduate school. This effort is part of a larger initiative to encourage underrepresented students in science to pursue graduate degrees in agriculture, natural resources, and related fields, with the ultimate goal of promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and respect (DEIR). 

“We’ve come a long way,” says Evelyn Cooper, assistant dean for academic programs and director for diversity and retention in AGNR. “We’ve had a lot of important conversations, hosted training, and even have a new strategic plan for DEIR. It’s really important in showing that we can emerge as leaders in the area of DEIR, and student programming is an important part of that. Students are one of our major constituent groups, and we want all of our students to feel that when they come to Maryland, they have the resources, support, climate, and connections to be successful. As an undergraduate student, I actually participated in a summer program that was geared towards underrepresented students like this one, so I know how much of a difference it can make.”

Cooper has been managing the SOARE program for the past few years, but on a much smaller scale and budget from AGNR funds. With new external funding from USDA-NIFA, the program has expanded from 8 to 10 weeks, provides highly competitive stipends for student participants, support for faculty mentors, and even travel stipends to allow faculty mentors and their students to present their research at a professional conference. The number of students the program was able to support also doubled from previous years, with 12 students participating in either a virtual, in-person, or hybrid format this summer.

“The resources from the USDA have allowed us to really expand the program, but also provide some additional activities for the students,” says Cooper. “In addition to social activities we’ve done in the past, we were able to provide more professional development opportunities, including lunch and learn sessions with faculty and staff, and even career shuttles with industry partners. This year, we featured career shuttles with the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN) and with the USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). We dedicated a day to each where students could tour the facilities, meet with staff scientists, network with alums, and have conversations about what it is like to be an underrepresented scientist and what they can expect from a career in these agencies. This year, the shuttles were virtual, but we are excited for the years to come when we can do this in person.”

This year’s 12 students, all young women scientists, were able to meet with their individual faculty mentors and discuss the research they will be doing over the 10 weeks. While students are learning the ropes in the lab and getting to know their mentor’s work, they are also formulating their own original research question to answer. Their mentors guide them through this process, acting beyond just the lab setting to give advice on graduate school applications and future career paths. Faculty mentors include: Rachel Dennis and Lisa Taneyhill from Animal and Avian Sciences (ANSC); Candice Duncan, Jose-Luis Izursa, Stephanie Lansing, Mitchell Pavao-Zuckerman, and Lance Yonkos from Environmental Science and Technology (ENST); Lars Olson from Agricultural and Resource Economics (AREC); Diana Obanda and Rohan Tikekar from Nutrition and Food Science (NFSC); Weizhong Li and Xiaoping Zhu from Veterinary Medicine; and Megan Fritz from Entomology with the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences.

This experience culminates in a research forum and awards ceremony at the end of the 10 weeks, where students present their findings and answer questions about their work the way they would at a scientific conference. This year, the awards and final presentations were given virtually on July 30, 2021.

“I’m absolutely blown away by the quality of the work and the time and effort put into these studies,” said Craig Beyrouty, dean of AGNR. “These projects are so diverse and so impactful, and it’s so incredible that you did it in a matter of 10 weeks. You all should be very proud. We hope this stimulates your interest in continuing on in your studies, and we’d love to have you do it at UMD. But wherever you do it, we are excited to see what you continue to do. We desperately need scientists like you who are doing this work for the future and good of humanity. We are so proud of you and this program.”

Here are some examples of student projects, with input directly from the participants themselves about their experience in the SOARE program.

Morgan Banks, Senior Animal Science Major at Tuskegee University
: Rachel Dennis, ANSC
Project: The Effects of Maternal Diet on Poultry Behavior and Welfare

Morgan Banks headshot
Morgan Banks

Morgan is a high performing student at Tuskegee University, joining the program virtually from Georgia. She is involved in the Students in Animal Care and Rescue club, Student National Association of Black Veterinarians chapter at her school, is a cheerleader, a student ambassador, and is very involved in the professional organization MANRRS, or Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences. She wants to be a small animal veterinarian with a focus in animal nutrition, and she was excited to gain some research experience this summer to become a more well-rounded student and candidate for veterinary school.

“My experience working with Dr. Dennis has been great,” says Morgan. “My research is geared towards trying to see how the maternal diet affects prenatal development in poultry, so it goes hand-in-hand with the animal science and nutrition perspectives of my major. I had never worked with poultry before, and what I have learned here will absolutely help me be a better veterinarian.”

Morgan explains that participating virtually has given her the opportunity to hone her skills in a different way, getting a taste for lab work while developing her ability to answer her own research questions and analyze data effectively. She also recognizes the importance of programs like these to drive DEIR initiative forward, and highly recommends it to anyone interested in summer research.

“I believe that diversity is very important,” says Morgan. “Even coming in starting early in middle school, I went to a very diverse school in a community that was open to all races. It gave me a broader perspective that I will always carry with me. And I definitely recommend that everyone applies for this internship. We are making so many great connections, and my mentor and I have formed a bond. She gives me advice on my vet applications, my essays, questions I should ask during interviews - it builds a relationship that will last into the future.”

Gabriela Mercado Rojas, Senior Nutrition and Dietetics Student at the University of Puerto Rico
: Diana Obanda, NFSC
Project: Urtica Dioica Functional Vegetable Attenuates Fat Absorptions in a Mouse Obesity Model

Gabriela Mercado Rojas in the lab
Gabriela Mercado Rojas

Gabriela traveled from her home in Puerto Rico to spend the summer on campus at UMD for the SOARE program. She has always expressed a strong interest in health sciences, and she got interested in nutrition specifically because of family members with metabolic diseases like diabetes. “I myself have hypoglycemia,” confesses Gabriela. “So since I was a little girl, I had to be very careful about what I ate. This got me interested in nutrition when I was young.”

With this personal passion driving her, Gabriela wants to become a registered dietitian (RD) and go to graduate school to continue her studies in nutrition and dietetics. Working with Diana Obanda in NFSC was obviously a natural fit.

“I’m working in a nutrition biochemistry lab under Dr. Obanda studying a plant and vegetable, Urtica dioica, commonly known as stinging nettle,” says Gabriela. “I am studying that vegetable to know how it affects fat absorption in the intestines. The purpose of that is to know how we can use it as an intervention for obesity.”

Gabriela feels that her experience in the lab and coming to UMD will be invaluable to her future career as a dietitian, and will prepare her for graduate school.

“I have acquired lab and research skills that I will definitely use for graduate school,” says Gabriela. “We are learning a lot about applying to graduate school and funding opportunities, and careers that we can do after graduating. As a dietitian, knowing how foods work in the body is fundamental, and that is what I am studying here. Being in a lab actually working on that, it makes me have a better understanding of nutrition, and that will definitely help me in the future when I will be working with patients and helping them to improve their eating patterns and health. It’s been great being on campus, and I’ve learned a lot. This experience has taught me lab skills and research skills, but also personal responsibility and commitment.”

Shane Querubin, Junior Environmental Science and Technology Major (Concentration in Ecological Technology Design) and Sustainability Minor at the University of Maryland
: Lance Yonkos, ENST
Project: Assessing the Utility of the Mummichog and Sheepshead Minnow as Model Species for Fish Reproductive Health in Rivers with Historic Contamination 

Shane Querubin in lab
Shane Querubin

Shane came to the United States with her parents from the Philippines at age 6. The first in her family to attend college in the states, Shane transferred to UMD from Boston College seeking out a more diverse environment. Originally a psychology major, she quickly realized it wasn’t for her and fell in love with environmental science in a class she took with Lance Yonkos. She promptly switched her major and joined AGNR. “Dr. Yonkos ended up being my mentor this summer for the SOARE program too, so it was honestly a cool circle from where I started at UMD to where I am now.”

“I always knew I wanted to go to grad school, but it seems a little more possible now,” adds Shane. “Especially with this program, I’ve learned so much about how grad school works. I’m working in Dr. Yonkos’ toxicology lab right now, and our focus is on the Anacostia watershed and another river in New Jersey. Essentially we are working with two fish species in these watersheds, focused on their larvae and seeing how the embryo and larvae develop when there are certain pollutants in the water. We are starting to see the relationship between certain pollutants that are common in this area, like dioxins, PAHs, and PCBs. All of those are carcinogenic. And we are seeing the trends that these animals are being affected when they are in their developmental phases.”

Shane says she now sees the direct connection between toxicology and her future work in environmental technology and design. “A lot of the hotspots we found are places where old oil or coal factors used to be. A lot of it is very connected, so I think toxicology will definitely be something I will still bring with me into graduate school because the kind of technology I would want to make is what would prevent those problems, so it is very interconnected.”

She is also very thankful for the opportunity this program has given her, and the guidance of her mentor (Lance Yonkos) and faculty advisor (Jose-Luis Izursa). “I feel like these two professors have really been my opportunities people - they give a lot of ideas of what to apply for, what to do in the lab, and how to be a better student,” says Shane. “It’s been such a great experience, and especially as a cohort of all girls in science. But the fact that the program got USDA funding was huge, because I needed a job to save up for tuition and housing this summer. Having the opportunity to be paid while also doing an undergraduate research experience was really important, and if I didn’t have that financial support, I would have just had to do my usual part time job over the summer. More programs should consider different financial situations and have stipends like this for underrepresented students.”

For more information on the SOARE program and other DEIR initiatives within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at UMD, visit This program is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA), Award # 2021-67037-34632