URBANA, Ill. – A new grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture will provide over a quarter million dollars to train 20 undergraduate students in beef cattle nutrition research over the next four years. The unique program, known as the Illinois Beef Experiential Learning and Industry Exposure Fellowship (I-BELIEF), pulls underrepresented students from four public agricultural universities across the state to leverage the research resources available within the University of Illinois system.
“One of the things we’re excited about is strengthening the relationship with our partner institutions: Illinois State University, Western Illinois University, and Southern Illinois University. Illinois is unique in having four public institutions with programs in animal science and beef cattle,” says Josh McCann, assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at U of I, and co-principal investigator on the grant.
Dan Shike, associate professor in the department and co-principal investigator on the grant, adds that they’re hoping the program will diversify beef cattle industry leadership in the long term. “For example, we have a huge population of female undergraduates in the department, but there are very, very few female faculty members in beef nutrition and a pretty small number of female scientists in industry. We’re lucky to have female mentors in the program, but that trend has to change.”
The program will admit five rising juniors and seniors each year, two from U of I and one each from the other three universities. The heart of the program is a 10-week summer research experience at the Urbana Beef and Sheep Research Field Laboratory, Dixon Springs Agricultural Center, or Orr Agricultural Research and Demonstration Center. But McCann says the students will actively participate in the program throughout the year.
“The students are spread out across the state, but we’ll bring them together on the U of I campus multiple times each year. In May, they’ll come together for our launch program, which includes research training, team building, and leadership development activities to start getting them prepared for their summer,” he says. “During their summer research experience, they’ll go to the Illinois Beef Association summer conference as a group, which will give them some good industry exposure. At the end of the summer, they’ll come back together to recap the summer, but we’ll also bring in alumni that are industry experts to help students figure out a career action plan.”
Students will develop a research abstract and present their work at the Midwest Animal Science meeting the following spring. “I think the intensity of the summer and getting to a point where a student can present data publicly will require them to grow and stretch in ways they haven’t before,” McCann says.
The result, according to Shike and McCann, will be well-prepared graduates ready to launch into graduate school or a career in beef nutrition. “I think we’ve created a pretty elite undergraduate research experience that can really prepare them to be successful in anything they choose,” McCann says.
Shike adds, “I think a student who successfully completes this fellowship would be well positioned to be accepted as a grad student in a top-tier research institution.”
Students have been accepted to the program for 2018, but interested students can contact McCann, Shike, or faculty at the partner institutions to learn how to apply for the summer of 2019. Collaborating mentors include Keela Trennepohl of Western Illinois University; Rebecca Atkinson of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale; Justin Rickard of Illinois State University; Travis Meteer and Teresa Steckler with Illinois Extension; and Frank Ireland, Wes Chapple, Miles Redden, at U of I.