In every classroom, laboratory, and office in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, you will find talented, dedicated people who are seeking to improve our world. I am pleased to share with you some of their stories.
– Shane C. Burgess, Vice President & Charles-Sander Dean
Professor Joan Curry joined the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences environmental sciences (then Soil, Water, and Environmental Science) faculty in 1995. Her teaching career at the University of Arizona has been distinguished by innovation and student-centered teaching.
In fact, even after more than two decades, Curry said her process of connecting with students is constantly evolving.
“I have as a high priority establishing the student’s relationship with the material as part of my teaching focus,” Curry says. “I want them to ask questions and dig in.”
Curry, a native of St. Louis, graduated in the third class that included women from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1982 and served as an officer for six years. She earned her Ph.D. from UC-Davis and did postdoctoral studies at Purdue and the Australian National University before joining CALS.
In September 2019, Curry received a Provost Award for Innovation in Teaching, recognizing faculty who have exemplary teaching and instructional effectiveness portfolios. Curry, a Cardon Academy of Teaching Excellence Fellow, also received the David E. Cox Faculty Teaching Award from CALS in Fall 2016.
Curry recently spoke about her “dedication and passion as a teacher and mentor” that was praised by Provost Liesl Folks, classroom technology, empowering students, and more.
On why innovation is important in the classroom: “Without innovation, things stay the same. Technology alone has changed so much. Everything is instantaneous. We know more about how people access, process and learn. Innovation has to happen. We are now in the position to facilitate the collection, sorting and integration of vast amounts of information right in the classroom. That’s pretty amazing.”
On what leadership in using student-centered teaching to help reform STEM education looks like in her classroom: “I have become increasingly convinced that students who sincerely are motivated to learn the subject at hand succeed much more at what Ken Bain calls deep learning. Motivation is driven by a personal stake in the enterprise. There is some reason to focus on putting the pieces together that is internal, not externally driven. I teach Environmental Science and am passionate about helping students develop a communicable understanding of the science behind current issues such as ozone depletion and greenhouse gases. I have as a high priority establishing the student’s relationship with the material as part of my teaching focus.”
On helping students understand difficult material: “I try to place the pieces of essential information carefully and then invite the students to work with the material to build an understanding structure. If I choose the right task I can see where students get stuck or veer off course and I can ask the question or insert information that helps them continue synthesizing the information. Step by step, I can see how it goes and follow their thinking. This takes longer than if I just explained a difficult concept and they listened but I think in the end it is time better spent.”
On advice she might offer to a first-time university instructor: “One thing that has been very useful for me in recent years is to know that everything I do in a classroom is really an experiment, it can change at any time, and flexibility is an advantage. Plan what you are going to do, notice what happens, talk it over, find the good stuff, celebrate the ah-ha moments and adjust.”
On what she considers the best part of being a teacher: “Not sure I could sum that up very well. There are many aspects, some of which I’ve mentioned above. One thing for sure though, is the privilege to get to know and work with so many exceptional students and colleagues.”
University of Arizona senior Jackie Kondkhorov remembers her freshman orientation as being, well, disorienting.
Kondkhorov, who is from Boston, Mass., had enrolled in the UA sight-unseen on the advice of a family friend. Her first visit to campus left her wondering what she’d gotten herself into.
“My mom and I went to orientation and there’s a million people and there were these big Wildcat mascots and they were dancing around,” Kondkhorov said. “Plus, it was June and it was super-hot. We were like, ‘Where are we?’ But it was baby steps, and everything turned out fine.”
Rather than being intimidated, Kondkhorov, a first-generation student, set out to conquer campus. Now, she is an agriculture technology management major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, a CALS Ambassador, and belongs to several clubs, including the Arizona Surfers.
“I’m a very curious person,” she said. “I try to do and figure it all out for myself.”
Kondkhorov began her academic career with an undeclared major, something she did on purpose to be able to explore different fields. She scheduled visits with professors from numerous departments, leading her to an appointment with Quintin Molina, an associate professor in the agricultural education department. He explained the wide array of academic offerings and career paths in CALS.
“Right then and there I had this click—all right, sign me up, this is so awesome,” Kondkhorov said. “It was the combination of animal sciences and plant sciences and a little bit of the business side and it sounded like exactly what I wanted to do.”
It was another brand-new situation. Growing up in the urban Northeast, she had no agricultural background except childhood visits to farms. “Students here tell me they were in FFA or 4-H and we didn’t have that,” she said, but she’s not surprised by where she ended up.
“I feel that the biggest challenge for Jackie was learning that her lack of agriculture-related background was not a hindrance to her personal success,” Molina said. “She is an excellent example of the fact that students of diverse backgrounds can be wildly successful within our college, and that their success is not dependent upon an ag background.”
Summer in Israel
Kondkhorov spent the summer of 2018 at an internship with a precision ag startup company in Tel Aviv, Israel, called Taranis, which uses drone technology to prevent crop yield loss. She worked as an analyst, viewing images of crops to identify problems like disease, chemical injury, and insect damage.
“Technology, research, development—everything is happening in Israel,” Kondkhorov said. “There was so much to do and see.”
The professional aspect was just one part of a larger experience. She lived in Jerusalem, which required a 90-minute commute each way on two buses to get to her office. Kondkhorov had been to Israel three times visiting family before her internship, but this time was different. The daily trip into Tel Aviv took her past farm fields and gave her “time to reflect.” On weekends, she explored the country, checking out beaches, the desert, and the metropolitan areas.
“It was a jam-packed summer,” she said.
CALS Ambassador and mentor
Kondkhorov joined CALS Ambassadors because she believes it’s important to share her knowledge and experience, especially with first-generation students or any students who might need help or guidance.
The CALS Ambassador program is a competitive leadership program in the college that emphasizes professionalism, intrapersonal and organizational skills. It celebrated its 25th year in 2018-19.
“My freshman year, I didn’t know what I was doing,” said Kondkhorov, who will graduate in spring 2019 and is looking at careers in agribusiness. “I had to find my own way. But being here and being a CALS Ambassador, I can say, ‘I’ve been there, I can help you.’ I stay in touch with a few of the students I’ve met on tours, and we’ll go for coffee and catch up and I’ll ask how their first semester is going.”
Her main piece of advice to CALS freshmen: “You’re in the right place.”
University of Arizona freshman Antonio Camacho-Hernandez discovered his professional calling after rushing into a situation most people try to avoid.
Camacho-Hernandez was spending the summer before his senior year of high school shadowing his aunt, an ER doctor, at a hospital in Texas. He was helping with some paperwork one day when a bell sounded for a “code blue” emergency. Camacho-Hernandez followed his aunt into a room that soon filled with more than 30 doctors and nurses working to save the patient’s life.
“It was crazy and overwhelming but eye-opening,” Camacho-Hernandez recalled. “It’s something that will always stick with me, because I wanted to be able to help but couldn’t. It made me realize what I want to do.”
The experience helped Camacho-Hernandez decide to major in microbiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. His goal is to continue to medical school and become an ER doctor; in the meantime, he plans on joining the campus EMS (emergency medical services) program.
“In the ER, you’re actually with the patient, calming them down, helping them out,” said Camacho-Hernandez, who also did an internship in the cardiovascular ICU at Banner University Medical Center during his senior year at Cienega High School in Vail, Ariz. “It’s the most immediate way to help people there is.”
Motivated by KEYS Internship
This past summer, Camacho-Hernandez was selected to participate in a UA BIO5 Institute KEYS Research Internship. He worked in Dr. Kristen Limesand’s lab in the nutritional sciences department, helping her team find a cure for post-chemoradiation dry mouth in head-and-neck cancer patients.
The lab environment was completely different from the chaos and tension of the emergency room or ICU, but the research and time management skills he developed were invaluable.
“The internship was good for a lot of reasons but the biggest one was motivation,” Camacho-Hernandez said. “It was exhausting, and you’d think you wouldn’t want to do it anymore, but it really just pushes you. I was able to produce maybe three times more what I thought I’d be able to do.”
Camacho-Hernandez said the first week of the KEYS (Keep Engaging Youth in Science) Internship is called training week, when participants go through a rigorous program designed to familiarize them with basic lab techniques. It also required nightly homework, meaning the interns sometimes had 16-hour days.
“The students liked to call it hell week,” Camacho-Hernandez said.
Once he settled into his project in the Limesand Lab, Camacho-Hernandez found the work “very satisfying.”
“I didn’t know what to expect going in there; I had a general idea and knew I wanted to be in a lab,” he said. “My main interest was medicine, and I was able to do something relative to it. Basically, the lab is looking to restore the salivary gland function in post-radiation therapy patients, to restore damage.”
Limesand has been involved with the Keys Internship Program for a decade, and hopes that students—who are either entering their senior year of high school or freshman year of college—can find out if they enjoy research while also having some fun.
“They’re giving up their summer,” Limesand said. “You want them to gain something out of it. I think for Antonio, he came in very excited about doing the work and through the seven weeks, he became more patient to work to the end; he (realized), ‘It’s OK to slow down for a moment and take it all in and think about what you’re doing.’”
From micro to music
When Camacho-Hernandez isn’t in a lab or learning about microorganisms, he’s using a completely different part of his brain. An accomplished piano and trumpet player, he is minoring in music.
Camacho-Hernandez’ favorite composer is Chopin, whose challenging piece “Fantasie-Impromptu” he played for one of his first recitals in the UA music program.
“My parents have had me in piano lessons since I was 7, so music seemed like the most logical thing to do,” he said. “It seems like it would make no sense but it’s something I always want to do. I use music as a buffer from all my other classes. It’s a stress reliever, not a stress inducer.”
Dr. Stock earned her B.S. in Biology (emphasis in Zoology) and her Ph.D. in Natural Sciences (emphasis in Parasitology and Nematology) at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata, Argentina. At the University of Arizona, she is currently the Director for the School of Animal & Comparative Biomedical Sciences (ACBS), as well as a professor of Entomology, ACBS, and Plant Sciences.
As of late, Dr. Stock received the Founders' Lecturer Award from The Society of Invertebrate Pathology, which is awarded in recognition of an outstanding and seminal contribution to a field of research within the general discipline of invertebrate pathology.
David Breshears, a professor of natural resources in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is one of the world's foremost authorities on understanding the root cause of tree deaths, which are occurring on a massive scale. Breshears has played a central role in identifying, diagnosing and communicating this threat on different ecosystems to a broad audience. In particular, he has detailed the degree to which loss of trees is due to a lack of sufficient water and exacerbated by the rise in temperatures. He has also played a multitude of leadership roles across the nation, including as an acclaimed teacher, mentor and scientist, as well as for the Ecological Society of America, the National Ecological Observatory Network, and the National Phenology Network. His major contributions include to interdisciplinary research include the UA's Critical Zone Observatory project, which focuses on the interface of geology and biology. For his work in academia, Breshears has also been elected a 2018 Regents' Professor by the Arizona Board of Regents.