Ag Students Roll up Sleeves to Learn

Two women talking in a swine facility while holding piglets
UC Davis animal science student Briana Ebbinghaus, right, learns about caring for pigs from animal science professor Trish Berger at the Swine Facility where Ebbinghaus is a student resident. Karen Higgins/UC Davis photo

Sure, UC Davis students are smart, but they also know how to roll up their sleeves. Inside the classroom, they learn why. Outside the classroom, they learn how.

Many of these students in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciencesget hands-on learning through internships on campus and in various industries connected to agriculture.

Read about six Aggies who put on their boots and their hats — or maybe their gloves and their lab goggles — to explore the working world of agriculture. 

Majors in Agriculture

Briana Ebbinghaus: Living high on the hog

Ebbinghaus has housemates that live like pigs. Actually, they are pigs.

Ebbinghaus, a junior from Livermore, is entering her second year as a resident of the UC Davis Swine Facility. An animal science major, she is one of four students who reside in dorm rooms at the hog barn, rent free, in exchange for 10 hours per week of animal care and a world of experience.

The students work with faculty and staff to care for the herd of 88 porkers used for teaching and research.

“I got interested in agriculture because it has a point — we’re feeding the nation,” said Ebbinghaus. “Also, it’s fun to get your hands dirty.”

Working at the hog barn helped Ebbinghaus earn the Nancy Rupp Tibbitts Scholarship, which supports students interested in production agriculture. She has also gained poise.

“Once you get comfortable handling really large animals, it makes you feel confident, sort of like, ‘Don’t mess with me.’”

New friends who learn that Ebbinghaus lives at the hog barn tell her “That sounds like a pretty cool gig.”

Male student with a food science T-shirt standing in an industrial-looking building
Efran Tash, president of the UC Davis Food Tech Club, has done internships with the Perishable Foods Council, a food-coloring company in Kentucky and at Kagawa University in Japan. Robin DeRieux/UC Davis photo

Efran Tash: A passion for food, penchant for internships

A senior from Simi Valley in Southern California, Tash chose food sciencebecause he wanted a technical education with real-world applications. And he loves trying new foods. He peppers his conversations with comments such as, “And that was the first time I ate silkworms.”

As a freshman, Tash joined the UC Davis Food Tech Club. This led to involvement in student food competitions at various expos around the country. He and fellow team members won first place with their entry video and presentation on a product they developed, green tea avocado macaron.

Winning national product development competitions opened the door to a summer internship in Kentucky. He worked at a company that develops natural food colorings, DDW The Colour House. After Kentucky, Tash headed to Japan for an international food science program where they focused on food safety and lab research.

Going beyond the classroom has taught Tash real-world skills.

“As an intern, I had to figure out a lot of things on my own,” he said. “When they give you your own project, it’s a chance to do something that has never been done before.”

Young woman in a straw hat holding a big tomato
Working toward providing more nutritious foods for all communities inspired Melissa Rosero to study agriculture. Karin Higgins/UC Davis photo

Melissa Rosero: Seeking food justice

As a city girl interested in agriculture and food systems, Rosero believes urban farming will play an important role in California’s future. She sees city plots and backyard gardens as a step toward a more sustainable and equitable food system.

“It bothers me seeing that Latino people provide most of the labor for the restaurant and farming industries, and yet don’t really reap the benefits of the healthiest diet,” said Rosero, who is from Los Angeles and of Colombian heritage.

“There are food deserts in California — places where the food selection is limited to a corner store with bananas and liquor.”

Rosero, a community college transfer student, is a senior at UC Davis majoring in sustainable food systems and agriculture, which requires multiple internships.

She interned in a soil science lab on campus, where she analyzed deep soil samples taken from UC Davis’ sustainable research farm, Russell Ranch. Last summer, she also interned at a commercial organic farm in Woodland.

“I want to make a difference,” says the Mrak Award recipient, “and I realized I need a deeper understanding of the food system.”

Young man leaning over and working on a lab project
In the Hanson lab, Oscar Morales isolates juglone—a naturally occurring compound produced by the bark, roots and leaves of walnuts that can be used to discourage weed growth. Robin DeRieux/UC Davis photo

Oscar Morales: Bringing science back home 

Morales grew up surrounded by agriculture on California’s central coast in the Santa Maria Valley. The son of Mexican immigrants, he and his eight siblings helped their parents grow green beans, cucumbers and zucchini. After finishing high school, Morales worked in construction and other jobs.

Eventually he decided to enroll in the local community college to study plants. 

“My parents were confused when I chose agriculture, but I’m not planning to work in the fields,” said Morales, a first-generation college student. 

“I want to come up with new ideas that increase productivity, that lessen the burden of agriculture. I want local farmers to get the most for their efforts. I want to help my community.” 

On the advice of an inspiring enology instructor, Morales decided to transfer to UC Davis to study plant sciences.

Now a graduating senior, he has worked in the laboratory of weed scientistBrad Hanson, participated in the annual Undergraduate Research Conference, and he interns for the seed company Sostena.

Next goal, a master’s degree in weed science.

Woman standing in a stream holding a big fish
Sarah Berg holds a largemouth bass, one of the species of fish that can be used in aquaponics systems to grow crops. Deborah Porter/UC Davis photo

Sarah Berg: A fish story

As a child growing up in Guam, Berg fell in love with fish. When her military family later moved to California, the family took a road trip through the wine country that piqued her interest in agriculture.

The combination of these influences helped Berg define her career goal: aquaponics. That field merges aquaculture (farming fish) with hydroponics (growing plants in water). Aquaponics is a closed-loop system that uses nutrient-rich water from fish tanks to grow plants.

wildlife, fish and conservation biology major, Berg first heard about aquaponics in an aquaculture class she took at UC Davis. Understanding the complexity of fish biology is one of the keys to success in the system because it can be difficult to get fish to reproduce in captivity.

Over the summer, Berg volunteered in Half Moon Bay with SchoolGrown, a nonprofit aquaponics venture. “Working there confirmed that this is definitely what I want to do with my life,” said Berg.

Ultimately, Berg would like to train communities in developing countries how to set up a self-sustaining aquaponics ecosystem. “It’s a big dream,” said Berg, a Mrak Award recipient, “but I think it’s possible.” 

Young man and older man in a greenhouse pointing to plants
Scott Malain works with Garry Pearson, College of Agricultural and Enviornmental Sciences greenhouse lead manager, who frequently engages student interns in conversations about the broader issues affecting California’s agricultural industry. Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis photo

Scott Malain: The greenhouse effect 

Malain likes greenhouses, where the environment is always under control. A senior in plant sciences, he prefers to work with plants in a setting where the consistent temperature and humidity offer refuge from the extremes of summer heat or winter chill.

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Unfortunately, insects and diseases that attack plants are also cheerful about the climate-controlled confines of greenhouses. So one day per month, Malain inventories 162 greenhouses on the 5,300-acre UC Davis campus. He takes photos, checks for insects and other problems, and reports back to Garry Pearson, lead manager for College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences greenhouses.

“The visual identification of pests takes practice,” said Pearson. “Knowledge of the lifecycles and insect pressure is a vital task for research greenhouses.” 

As an intern in the plant sciences greenhouses, Malain gets plenty of practice applying what he’s studied in entomology, plant pathology, plant sciences, viticulture and other related sciences. 

“In the classroom, it’s very theoretical,” said Malain. “In the greenhouse, you have to learn to solve problems using a variety of strategies.” 

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