Three from CALS Win University of Arizona Awards of Distinction

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

For Rebecca Mosher, plants are, from a genetic standpoint, unique and critically important. Her research unlocks how plants develop and evolve, especially as they interact with outside factors like the environment.

For Ashley Dixon-Kleiber, satisfaction comes from tapping into a community, everything from conducting vision screening for children to helping families get on sound financial footing.

And for Na Zuo, teaching goes beyond pure knowledge. “It is about students learning how to be a professional contributor,” she said.

Their interests and focus vary, but Mosher, Dixon-Kleiber, and Zuo share one thing: Their work has gained them recognition and prestige among their University of Arizona colleagues. The three from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences were honored this spring with university-wide Awards of Distinction:

  • Mosher, an associate professor of plant sciences, won the Distinguished Scholar Award.
  • Dixon-Kleiber, assistant area agent with Gila County Cooperative Extension, won the Early Career Scholar Award.
  • Zuo, associate professor of practice in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, won the Gerald J. Swanson Prize for Teaching Excellence.

Rebecca Mosher: Groundbreaking work on plants

Rebecca Mosher studies the way plants’ genes interact with outside forces, such as disease or environmental factors, and the resulting modifications, a field known as epigenetics. She digs into gene regulation and a biological process called RNA-directed DNA methylation.

If it sounds complex, it is.

But Mosher explains that she’s researching the “ongoing discussion” between a mother plant and its offspring, starting with seed development. The research involves RNA, a nucleic acid present in all living organisms, which acts as a messenger carrying instructions from the mother plant to the seeds and seedlings.

“If we understand this information flow, can we tap into it?” Mosher said. The practical implications could be huge. For instance, scientists could tailor seeds for specific environmental conditions, such as excessive heat or drought, if they grasp how plants communicate at the cellular and molecular level, she said.

Mosher’s work has gained attention far beyond the University of Arizona. She is widely published, and her research has been cited thousands of times.

Mosher is also the university’s lead scientist on a $25-million, multi-university grant from the National Science Foundation. The nationwide team plans to develop new methods to observe and control plant responses to their environment and to catalogue the information in an “Internet of Living Things” that can help researchers support plant systems in a changing global climate.

Mosher conducts much of her research on Brassica rapa, a field crop and relative of canola that is sometimes called Chinese cabbage. Her colleague, Ravi Palanivelu, said that sets her apart from other researchers, most of whom study RNA-directed DNA methylation in what are known as model plants. The awards committee noted that Mosher’s scholarship “has been envisioned to be tremendously promising for future applications toward increasing yield in major food crops.”

Palanivelu, an associate professor, said Mosher also has advanced the field by incorporating both comparative genomics – essentially comparing how plant species respond differently or similarly to a range of factors – and evolutionary biology into her work.

“It’s now becoming very clear that (the evolution) is even more complex in cereal crops and in other plants,” Palanivelu said. “So her work will be really important to understand how this system evolved over the years. That will have long-term implications.”

He added that Mosher makes her classes fun and relatable, such as dropping in references to Marvel Comics characters, and that she is a great role model, especially for aspiring female scientists.

Mosher grew up in Tucson, earned her undergraduate degree at UArizona, and has been back at the university since 2010. She says her work is simply something she loves and that there is always more to discover. Upcoming research will explore epigenetic markers in rice, one of the planet’s most critical staples.

“Plants are super rad and super interesting,” she said. “And, of course, they’re important.”

Ashley Dixon-Kleiber: Identifying needs, developing support

The fulltime assistant area agent position for family, consumer, and health sciences at Gila County Cooperative Extension had been vacant for about 20 years before Ashley Dixon-Kleiber arrived in late 2017.

Since then, Dixon-Kleiber has laid the foundation for programs covering positive parenting, financial literacy for families, developmental screening, and more.

The results have been uniformly impressive and are being applied across Arizona, her colleagues say. A sampling of results from just from one area Dixon-Kleiber leads, a financial literacy program, illustrates the progress:

  • 97% of the 143 respondents said they will think differently about how they manage their money.
  • 92% said they could have more money if they made different choices.
  • 78% of participants reported finding “spending leaks” that cost them an average of $3,395 a year, or $65 per week.
  • Participants said the workshop influenced them to pay off bills, start savings, spend on needs before wants, track expenses, and develop a spending/savings plan.

“When you help with finances, you help the whole family,” Dixon-Kleiber said. “Stress levels go down.”

Similar findings were reported in her work with parents. For instance, parents who went through the Extension program reported an increased ability to see things from their child’s perspective, a decrease in spanking as a disciplinary tool, and greater willingness to respond to their children with kindness and firmness at the same time.

“She has worked hard to foster productive working relationships with specialists, agents, program coordinators, and staff around the state, and disseminates science-based information,” Renee Carstens, Gila County Extension director, and others said in their nominating letter for Dixon-Kleiber.

They also cited Dixon-Kleiber’s work with the Extension Anti-Racism Workgroup, which has created resources for parents to teach their children about race through children’s literature, and said it strengthens the university’s commitment to equity and diverse communities and helps families across the state.

“The truth is that regardless of the initiative to which she decides to offer her support, Ms. Dixon takes her commitment seriously and becomes an active and avid participant,” they said.

Dixon-Kleiber credits her partners for the success. Gila County is rural, with about 55,000 people, nearly 20 percent of whom identify as Native American. Half of the county’s 4,800 square miles includes the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

“We are so community-focused,” she said. “We enlist established groups – tribal entities and social services agencies – and collaborations so that we have the trust. We develop relationships that can carry us forward.”

The programs she covers are broad, but Dixon-Kleiber said the approach is individualistic. Her programs have conducted thousands of vision, hearing, and developmental screenings of children who are five and younger. The payoff comes when she can secure, say, a referral for a 3-year-old to get glasses, knowing that early intervention is critical to the child’s learning and developmental success.

“By improving one life through education, we essentially improve the health of the community, little by little,” she said. “I absolutely love what I do in Extension and appreciate the whole team that helps make it happen day to day.”

Na Zuo: Putting authenticity into the classroom

Welcome to Na Zuo’s Financial Management for Agribusiness Economics class for seniors. Have you prepared your financial analysis of the project you want your team to undertake, studied the competition, and weighed the risk/return of your venture?

How about the one-minute pitch you’re going to make about why you should be the manager of the project? Or would you rather be a private contractor who works for the manager, even though the manager can recommend grades for you, depending on your level of work?

“It’s like the labor market,” Zuo said. “It’s about teamwork. There are bonuses, there are recommended grades. This model really motivates them to solve team problems themselves.”

When she came to the University of Arizona in 2017, Zuo was the first professor of practice in her CALS unit, Agricultural and Resource Economics. “I was told that whatever I do will be innovative,” she said.

Still, the level of involvement and detail she puts into her classes sets her apart.

“To say that Dr. Zuo is the departmental leader in instruction would be an understatement,” said Gary Thompson, department head of AREC. “She has consistently led by example but also has effectively collaborated with her colleagues, young and old, to dedicate time and effort to improving teaching.”

Zuo said she wants students to learn the basics of their subject, but the key is helping them understand how to apply their knowledge to solve real problems. Doing that requires active learning.

“Students are motivated to learn once they make that connection to their own lives and the real world,” she said.

So she will ask students in her Agribusiness Management class to generate ideas for projects by pinpointing spots where something bothers them, where it seems like a system is breaking down. In a class on food economics and the supply chain, Zuo takes students to the UArizona Campus Pantry, where they can see examples of food insecurity.

“I adapt authenticity into my classroom,” she said. “I can cite statistics, but students need to relate. After going to the Campus Pantry, they can put a face on the statistics in their community.”

The exercise is a win-win, Zuo added. The students get experiential learning, and partners such as the Campus Pantry can use the research and statistics to apply for grants and to identify gaps.

Thompson said Zuo’s teaching is never static.

“She continuously updates materials to stay abreast of new developments,” he said. “I am particularly impressed with the array of (agribusiness) industry people she has invited to campus and more recently virtually to talk with students. Unlike some professors who simply want to stand at the podium and lecture as ‘experts,’ Dr. Zuo consistently interacts with agribusiness stakeholders off campus to ensure what she teaches is relevant and prepares students to ably enter the workforce with highly valued skills.”

For Zuo, it’s basic. “I am proud to call myself an educator. My goal is to help my students achieve their goals.”