Campus News

Graduate Student Travel Awards enhance international research efforts

Diego Barcellos visited Mount Fuji while in Japan for a conference.

For the second year in a row, three UGA students have been named recipients of Graduate International Travel Awards from the UGA Office of Global Programs in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Established in 2011, the awards traditionally have provided roundtrip airfare to an international destination to only one graduate student. For the past two years, however, applications have been of such a high quality that OGP has expanded the number of awards given.

This year’s recipients, Alexandra Bentz, Diego Barcellos and Emily Urban, traveled a combined distance of 37,703 miles this summer to further their research and enhance their international experience.

Bentz, a doctoral candidate in poultry science, spent a week in Orange Walk, Belize, collecting behavioral data, testing for rabies and Bartonella bacteria, and collecting hair samples to measure cortisol levels in vampire bats.

Because Bentz’s doctoral research focuses on the genetic mechanisms that regulate aggression in birds, her experience measuring the stress hormone cortisol was an opportunity for her to begin a new line of exploration with fellow UGA graduate student Daniel Becker, who is leading the research project.

“Daniel approached me last year about joining the project and helping with measuring the stress hormone cortisol,” Bentz said. “I became interested in the behavioral aspect of the project and, since I had never done work abroad, I was excited to go to Belize and to work with 20-30 biologists from all over the world who are studying various aspects of vampire bats in this region.”

The project focuses on behavioral changes in vampire bats that seem to be occurring as a result of increasing agriculture in the once-remote rain forests of Latin America. As the bats become less afraid of humans, there’s concern that they may become more aggressive, which could lead to an increase in bat-vectored diseases such as rabies.

Barcellos, a doctoral candidate in crop and soil sciences, used his travel award to attend the Goldschmidt International Conference in Yokohama, Japan.

Jointly organized by the American Geochemical Society and the European Association of Geochemistry, the conference is the premier international conference for geochemistry and biogeochemistry.

Barcellos’ research focuses on the effects of iron oxides in soil carbon dynamics.

“By better understanding the mechanisms of carbon and nutrient storage by iron and aluminum oxides, we can better manage soil nutrients and improve carbon sequestration in the soils,” he said. “Moreover, a more profound understanding of soils is essential for achieving global food security.”

During the conference, Barcellos presented a poster of his laboratory research, demonstrating that the dynamics of reduction-oxidation fluctuations change iron reduction rates and directly affect the mineralization, preservation and storage of organic carbon in soils.

He also spent three days with more than a dozen colleagues from around the world, learning about the geology and soils of Japan, specifically the area around Mount Fuji.

“It’s interesting to see this area because Mount Fuji’s eruption was only 300 years ago, so you’re seeing very young rock,” Barcellos said, explaining that it takes a minimum of 10,000 years for rocks to degrade and become soil.

Master’s student Emily Urban likely traveled the most miles this summer—18,464—with her International Travel Award.

Urban’s summer began with a trip to Romania where she spent two weeks as a co-leader of agricultural communication professor Abigail Borron’s Maymester course.

As part of a partnership with Heifer International, the students stayed with host families in the cities of Cluj and used video, photography and written narratives to document local agricultural and community development projects.

At the end of May, Urban boarded a plane south to Mozambique for a project with the Feed the Future Peanut and Mycotoxin Innovation Lab, headquartered at UGA.

Urban traveled throughout the Nampula and Cabo Delgado provinces with eight locally hired individuals, gathering data that will provide a fuller understanding of peanut production and its challenges, in addition to information on the marketing and consumption of groundnuts in Mozambique.

Urban, who has spent the past 1½ years working with the PMIL team on the UGA campus, led a portion of the project that is focused on gender.

“Each day our team visits two new communities and interviews 25 households,” Urban said in an email from Mozambique. “The local enumerators conduct the survey (as I do not speak the local language Makhuwa) and I serve as the field tech, ensuring data quality day to day and entering it into the database.”

The survey included questions about who makes decisions in the household, both in regards to peanut production and for general household issues. There also were detailed questions about the number of hours the men, women and children of a family spent for each production activity, such as ground preparation, planting, harvesting, drying and shelling.

“It is essential to understand how men and women contribute in these processes. In this way, possible future interventions can better target who is actually doing specific activities and can help ensure that both men and women are receiving equal opportunities,” Urban said. “Ultimately, I’ll be compiling an overview gender analysis in relation to the peanut value-chain in these regions.”

“The three recipients of this year’s Graduate International Travel Awards have a wide variety of interests and goals,” said Amrit Bart, director of the Office of Global Programs.