Hartnell Student Earns Prestigious Fellowship to Study Plant Diseases
In the science department at Hartnell College, renowned plant pathologist Carolee Bull and mentee Ana Ibarra chat about the student's story, her goals and her most recent achievement.
They have worked together since summer, when Ibarra received an internship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to research diseases in plants. But the rapport between them is that of long-time friends. Bull prods Ibarra to provide details about her journey as a budding scientist. Ibarra, who appears a bit shy, finds reassurance in the researcher's gaze.
"I heard very good things about Carolee," Ibarra, 26, says. "I heard she was an outstanding mentor and I felt like I would gain a lot by working with someone like her ... It's true what students would say about Carolee. She's an amazing mentor."
Under Bull's guidance and encouragement, Ibarra has been conducting research on plant illnesses that has earned her the Frank L. Howard Undergraduate Fellowship from the American Phytopathological Society, a scientific organization dedicated to the study of plant diseases. The $1,000 award is to support research on bacterial leaf spot diseases on members of the Apiacea family, which includes parsley, cilantro and celery.
It is an honor that makes Bull beam and administrators pat each other in the back. Andy Newton, coordinator of the STEM science, technology, engineering and math program at Hartnell, calls the results Ibarra achieved "stellar."
"They are," Bull interjects. "We have scientific leadership coming from our students. This is a national award. This is the premier society studying plant diseases in the world, and they only give one fellowship a year."
It is the second national honor earned by one of Bull's students this year.
Isael Rubio, who just graduated from CSU Monterey Bay, received in March a prestigious and lucrative pre-doctoral fellowship from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Like Ibarra, Rubio researched plant diseases under Bull.
"We have really talented students and they're extremely hard working," Bull said. "We have several universities that call every year and ask 'Do you have more of those students?' The pipeline has started, many organizations are pulling together to make that a reality."
The recognition benefits growers, because the diseases researched often attack local crops and cause major financial losses.
Bull says vegetable growers often ask her if she is working on a problem they have encountered. She or a student usually are. The work of her students often ends up in the reports the prolific researcher co-authors.
Ibarra was accepted into several universities, including UC Davis, after graduating from Watsonville High School. But her family couldn't afford a college education, so she got a job.
After getting married and having a daughter, she decided she needed to set a better example for her daughter and registered in the nursing program at Hartnell.
In a biology classe, instructor Ann Wright kept mentioning scientific research as a career option. Ibarra got curious and applied for the STEM Internship program at Hartnell, where students are placed for eight weeks at a local research facility and have to present their findings at the annual symposium.
Working under the tutelage of Bull, Ibarra became fascinated with scientific discovery and decided to continue doing research on a voluntary basis. It was this dedication that earned her the national recognition, Newton said.
"If she weren't working on the (year-round) model, she would not have been able to get this fellowship," he said. "We get some good results in eight weeks, but you don't get stellar results unless you put in your time in the lab."
Ibarra feels fortunate to have found her scientific calling as an undergraduate and in a community college.
"I think it's amazing that you're at the forefront of discovery," Ibarra says, explaining her passion for science.
"It's sexy," Bull chimes in. "It's so enticing, isn't it?"
"Yeah, it is. You hear about this stuff and you go 'That's amazing' and you never really think you can do it," Ibarra responds. "For undergraduates, it's very difficult to have this type of exposure at an institution like the USDA. It's difficult to find a mentor that's willing to make the time and I think that makes the difference."
What makes the difference, says Bull, is that she sits one on one with her students to explore their knowledge.
"We get to the edge of what she knows and where she's uncomfortable. We don't want her to stay in an area where she's comfortable," Bull says.
Ibarra plans to transfer to a local university next year. Although she is undecided about her major, she wants to pursue a career where she will give back to the community, the same way it has been given to her.
"I've been helped by people who wanted to help those like me become better students ... You have to give that back as well."
Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at 753-6755 or firstname.lastname@example.org.