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
Sabrina Benedict-Monteverde feels a strong connection to the Arizona Online students she serves.
She knows each of them are on complex journeys—navigating the challenges of being an at-home parent while taking classes, for example—and works to ensure they feel connected and supported.
“It’s a population I hold near and dear to my heart because of the obstacles they face,” Benedict-Monteverde said. “There’s something really special about online students; they are often working full-time, or raising families, or they are military spouses, or first-generation, and you add the pandemic and I can really empathize.”
In her role as co-director for the Student Nutrition Advising Center (SNAC) in the School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness, Benedict-Monteverde leads academic advising for more than 400 Arizona Online students.
Described by her nutritional sciences and wellness colleagues as a true “servant leader,” a “trusted advisor” to students and faculty alike, and a “fierce advocate” for the online student population, Benedict-Monteverde received one of two Division of Agriculture, Life and Veterinary Sciences, and Cooperative Extension Outstanding Staff Awards in 2022.
“I’m just grateful,” she said. “I truly work with the best people. Our online team and on main campus, they have all helped us get to where we are.”
Since Benedict-Monteverde joined CALS in late 2019, the online student population in Nutritional Sciences and Wellness has grown from 115 to nearly 500, roughly 300 percent, the largest at the university.
That growth could have swamped her and the NSW advising team. Instead, she embraced an opportunity to work with a broad and diverse student population.
“Our online programs have grown exponentially and the rapid growth tested us and threatened to overwhelm us to the point that we could not enroll interested students in a timely manner and service them,” School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness Director Scott Going noted in his nomination letter. “Through a Herculean effort (Benedict-Monteverde) was able to clear the backlog and since that time our online program has nearly quadrupled.”
Benedict-Monteverde said one of the areas she’s focused on is strengthening connections between advisors and faculty, which has led to improving curriculums and student experiences.
“Our advising staff and faculty work really closely together and that’s different than other departments across the university,” she said. “For example, an advisor can tell a faculty member that students are struggling with X, Y, and Z, and the faculty say, ‘That’s an easy fix.’”
Benedict-Monteverde also developed FLOURISH, a peer ambassador program for NSW online students, who she said often feel disconnected not only to main campus but even other online students.
Her empathy for the students she works with comes from a series of personal challenges. Benedict-Monteverde is mother of two, one who is a special needs child, and her husband was diagnosed with cancer during the first year of the pandemic.
“We’re not able to participate in a lot of things that other families do, and I’ve had to negotiate flexibility with every job I’ve had,” she said. “So I really feel like I connect and empathize with these online students and I’m determined to deliver services to them that will eliminate barriers.”
Wrote Kellie Kirsch, an online student in pre-nutritional sciences and psychology: “As a non-traditional student, the idea of coming back to school or switching careers can be extremely daunting. While looking at different nutritional science programs, I was met with little feedback and help. Within five minutes of my first meeting with Sabrina I felt welcomed and heard and knew this was going to be the right program for me.”
In April 2022, six members of the University of Arizona wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) team were named winners of the 2022 ALVSCE Team Award. The Outstanding Team Award is given annually and recognizes outstanding contributions by a team in the Division of Agriculture, Life and Veterinary Sciences, and Cooperative Extension (ALVSCE).
The WEST Center team was nominated by the project's lead, Ian Pepper, with letters of support from Amy Glicken, University Initiatives Senior Project Manager, and Liesl Folks, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost. This year’s winning team included:
Walter Betancourt: Associate Research Professor
Erika Stark: Research Technician III
Sarah Prasek: Senior Program Coordinator
Aidan Foster: Ph.D. Graduate Student
Nick Betts-Childress: Research Technician I
Hannah Riedemann: M.S. Graduate Student
The process of monitoring wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 is complex and requires a team approach as well as built-in redundancy to allow for coverage when one team member was unavailable. The WBE team has worked diligently during the past two years to smoothly coordinate tasks: sample collection, sample processing, nucleic acid extraction, analysis for SARS-CoV-2, and data management and communications. Team members worked on campus and in WEST laboratories, utilized communication channels to quickly provide results, and analyzed data to improve WBE understanding and interpretation.
The WBE team began conducting wastewater monitoring during Fall 2020, worked through the entirety of 2021 (Spring, Summer, and Fall), and continues into 2022. Monitoring has been done 6 days a week throughout this whole period and has required a tremendous physical and mental effort by all team members. In addition to award winners, contributors to campus WBE during the past two years include Jeff Bliznick, Noelle Karp, Ciera Carrillo, Cass Kelley, and other WEST Center students.
As stated by Pepper:
“Overall, the WBE Team was a large part of the reason that the University of Arizona has been able to remain open and conduct in-person classes throughout the fall of 2020 and all of 2021. This saved the University $100m and potentially saved lives. An additional beneficial outcome of the project was the training and mentoring of both graduate and undergraduate students – it was truly rewarding to see the excitement of these students who realized they were doing incredibly important work. Thus, the Team clearly contributed not only to the ALVSCE mission, but the whole University and the community in general. This has been a special team effort that is certainly worthy of the ALVSCE Outstanding Team Award.”
Debbie Reed describes her role as senior program coordinator in the School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences as “more behind the scenes.” Her colleagues would respectfully disagree.
Reed received one of two Agriculture, Life and Veterinary Sciences, and Cooperative Extension Outstanding Staff Awards in the spring of 2022 for her energy, dedication, and creativity in supporting ACBS faculty, students, extensionists, and external stakeholders.
“She is the most professional, capable, talented, and competent person that I have ever had to support my extension efforts in the 29 years I’ve worked … at three different state universities,” ACBS professor and Cooperative Extension horse specialist Betsy Greene wrote in her nomination letter for Reed.
“With every single project or program Debbie is involved in, she gives 110 percent to ensuring the success of that program and works hard to find common sense solutions that benefit everyone,” wrote Extension livestock specialist Ashley Wright.
Behind the scenes? Hardly. Those who work with Reed both inside and outside ACBS and Cooperative Extension describe a staff member who takes center stage when it comes to keeping a vast array of programs moving forward and thriving.
The support Reed provides is dependent on the individual needs of each program and based on project management best practices. She works with both internal and external stakeholders from across CALS, the university, and the state to determine need and ensure achievement of project outcomes.
This includes conducting events and conferences, designing and developing publications, writing content, creating and managing websites, preparing financial statements and records on program activities, and providing progress, status or other special reports as required for management or outside agencies.
Colleagues credited Reed for her invaluable support of a long list of programs, including the Arizona Livestock Incident Response Team (ALIRT)—apartnership between Cooperative Extension, the Arizona Department of Agriculture, and the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association—the Beef Quality Assurance Program, Range Livestock Workshops, Horse Extension Programs, the Food Safety Consortium, the SaferFoodCats Program, UA Food Safety Poster Sessions, and the ACBS Newsletter. Many also noted her proficiency at organizing virtual trainings and seminars during the pandemic.
“Debbie was my hero that summer; without her I don’t think our program would have succeeded,” added Margarethe Cooper, the Victor P. Smith endowed chair in food safety education.
Additionally, Reed worked to keep the Beef Extension program running when the Beef Extension Specialist position was vacant, a program that is crucial to the UA’s Land Grant mission and ranchers. She did not directly fill the role, but she coordinated with ACBS faculty and county extension personnel to ensure programing continued while “streamlining and adding value to them” by supporting webinars, maintaining databases, coordinating certification classes, and staying in communication with stakeholders.
“When I work with a project or program I always try to make it better,” said Reed, who has worked in ACBS (previously Animal Sciences) since 2007. “The faculty are ultimately involved but they have always brought me in and wanted to know what I think and bring to the table, not just to do the paperwork. There are lots of different personalities and I think I’m good at figuring people out and quickly determining what kind of support they need.”
Reed majored in equine science at Colorado State University, then worked at veterinary clinics while moving around the country following her husband’s Air Force career before they settled in Tucson. She said being able to work in ACBS and extension was a perfect fit for her.
“I’ve just always liked the people and being able to work with all the different programs I do,” Reed said. “It’s interesting to me, especially coming from a background where I have ties to equine, animal, and food safety, I get to still be involved with those projects and people and help them.”
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. She graduated in 2019 as an agriculture technology management major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, served as a CALS Ambassador, and belonged 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. “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.”