Affiliated Faculty and Staff

Agroecology Program

Alex Racelis

Alex Racelis
Program Director, CENA / Program Director, SOAR / Faculty Chair, Tree Campus USA Committee

Alex is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and the School for Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He joined UTRGV from its legacy institution (UTPA) in January 2013, and before that was a research ecologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service. In response to the challenges of balancing agricultural and urban development in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Alex has established a nationally recognized research and student training program at UTRGV in agroecology and the study of urban ecosystems, with the ultimate goals of: (1) using science based approaches to elucidate patterns how landowner decision-making  (farmers, homeowners, etc) connect to environmental and social health, (2) and increasing ecological literacy in local area students though transformative education and engaged scholarship.  Ultimately, the goal of Alex’s program is to create intellectual capital through training and research and social capital and with community engagement and outreach to facilitate sustainability, equity, and resilience within our communities.

Tim Sears

Tim Sears
Program Co-Director, CENA

Tim Sears moved to the Rio Grande Valley in 2001 as a teacher for America corps starting his career down south at the Weslaco Independent School District for 11 years. He was a high school science teacher, eventually progressing into an administrator for the district's secondary science and Advanced Placement® program. He was selected as the Teacher of the Year with his dedication to improve the district's science program, obtaining grants, forming local science partnerships, and developing a student research program, all great attributes for UTPA's Agroecology CENA program. He chaired the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair Advisory Council, is an active board member with the Rio Grande Valley Science Association, and has been a project director and collaborator for many grants, including the USDA Hispanic-Serving Institutions Education Grant. Today Sears is a clinical faculty member in the College of Science and Mathematics at the University of Texas - Pan American. He is a founding instructor for the UTeach program with a national teacher certification for undergraduate STEM majors. Currently he is co-teaching the program's two introductory pedagogy courses.

John Goolsby

John Goolsby
Intern Mentor

John Goolsby is a Senior Research Entomologist with the United States Department of Agriculture - Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) for the Cattle Fever Research Unit in Edinburg, Texas. He specializes in biological control and integrated pest management methods (IPM) of weeds and pests. His current research includes biological control of invasive giant reed, Arundo donax, and the veterinary presets, Rhipicephalus microplus and R. annulatus, cattle fever ticks. Dr. Goolsby has evaluated the released two biological control agents for A. donax, which are now established in Texas on the Rio Grande. He has also developed IPM methods for potato psyllid to minimize the impact of zebra chip disease in potatoes. Prior to Weslaco, he was director of the USDA-ARS, Austrailian Biological Control Laboratory in Brisbane, Australia. His research in Australias focused on exploration for biological control agents of the Old World climbing fern, Lygodium microphyllum, and Australian paperbark tree, Melaleuca quinquenervia both of which are native to Australia/Southeast Asia and invasive in Florida Everglades. Prior to his overseas posting he was Supervisory Entomologist with USDA-APHIS at Moore Airbase, Edinburg, TX and was the co-project leader of the silverleaf whitefly biological control program. John received his B.S. (83) and Ph.D. (94) from Texas A&M University in entomology. He has authored two books, made six germplasm releases (insects and mites) and published more than 125 scientific articles. He has received more than 5 million dollars in competitive grants since 2006, including funds from Dept. of Homeland Security, Frito Lay, USDA-NIFA Specialty Crop Research Initiative & Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, Texas Dept. of Agriculture, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council.

Hugh Conway

Hugh Conway
Intern Mentor

Dr. Conway works at the USDA APHIS PPQ CPHST Mission Lab as a leading entomologist specializing in the Mexican Fruit Fly. He is a board member and section chair for fruit in the Subtropical Agriculture and Environment Society. He has received a certificate of appreciation from USDA in recognition of his support to the MFF rearing processes & the LRGV MFF as well as for the development of an alternative Mexican Fruit Fly diet that reduced Torula Yeast requirements by 66% in the mass rearing facility. He has contributed to 25 publications pertaining to his field of work, the most recent being, The Mexican Fruit Fly a Pest and Threat to Texas Citurs Growers.

SOAR

Robert Maggiani

Robert Maggiani
Sustainable Agriculture Specialist – Texas

Robert has a BBA and MS in Statistics, Accounting and Political Science from the University of Texas in Austin. He has a wealth of experience in agriculture from farming vegetables in Mexico to founding a farmworker cooperative in South Texas to serving as a Chief Marketing Specialist for the Texas Department of Agriculture, where he worked for almost 27 years. Robert has great experience with organic crop standards and certification as well as assisting farmers in developing new products and new markets. He speaks Spanish and has relationships with producers, organizations, retailers, wholesalers and other groups involved in Texas agriculture.

Subtropical Soil Health Initiative

Mike Morris

Mike Morris
Southwest Regional Office Director – Texas

Mike Morris's work at NCAT focuses on demonstrating local and sustainable food, water, and energy alternatives, in collaboration with grassroots groups, state and federal agencies, communities, utilities, and university researchers. His recent projects have included "Bringing New Farmers to the Table", "Energy Training for Agriculture Professionals","Building Farm Energy Self-Sufficiency," and "The Efficiency Plus Irrigation Pilot Project." Mike currently directs NCAT's Southwest Regional Office in San Antonio, Texas, and he previously led NCAT projects in Montana, California, and North Carolina. He earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh and has taught at many colleges and universities around the country.

UTRGV Faculty

Dr. Mirayda Torres-Avila

Dr. Mirayda Torres-Avila
Affiliated Faculty

Mirayda Torres-Avila, Ph.D, completed her undergraduates studies at the University of Puerto Rico - Mayaguez in the Department of Horticulture and continued her doctoral studies at Purdue University in the Interdisciplinary Science program. In her graduates studies, she worked with common bean populations using DNA-pool sequencing data to understand the domestication and evolution of this specie. Currently, she is working at the University of Texas - Rio Grande Valley as a Lecturer.

Dr. Chu-Lin Cheng

Dr. Chu-Lin Cheng
Affiliated Faculty

Dr. Chu-Lin Cheng is an assistant professor in both the Environmental & Earth Sciences Program (School of School of Multidisciplinary Sciences) and the Department of Civil Engineering. His training and research interests are hydrogeology, ecohydrology/ hydroecology, water resources management, groundwater/surface water interactions, contaminant fate and transport, and geo-informatics. He joined UTPA in August 2014. Prior to UTPA, he was a joint postdoctoral researcher in the Environmental Sciences Division, the Climate Change Science Institute at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the University of Tennessee.

Dr. Engil Isadora Pujol Pereira

Dr. Engil Isadora Pujol Pereira
Affiliated Faculty

Dr. Engil Pereira received her undergraduate studies in Agronomic Engineering at the Federal University of Santa Maria in 2007 and her Master and Ph.D  in Horticulture and Agronomy respectively from University of California, Davis. Her research program studies the dynamics of microbial-mediated biogeochemical processes in soil.

Dr. James Kang

Dr. James Kang
Affiliated Faculty

James Kang, Ph.D, is an environmental scientist and geologist who has specialization in soil science, agricultural engineering, water/air quality, and environmental geology. He received his Bachelor of Science in Science from Kyunghee University in 2001, a Master of Environmental Pollution Control from Pennsylvania State University in 2003 and a Ph.D in Soil Science from North Carolina State University in 2007. 

Dr. Bradley O. Christoffersen

Dr. Bradley O. Christoffersen
Afiiliated Faculty

Dr. Bradley Christoffersen is a broadly trained ecologist, with extensive experience in tropical forests and soon the thornscrub ecosystems of the Rio Grande Valley. His research focuses on plant physiological ecology, ecosystem ecology, and models which scale up processes from plant tissues to whole ecosystems.

Dr. Alejandro Fierro Cabo

Dr. Alejandro Fierro Cabo
Afiiliated Faculty

Dr. Aleljandro Fierro Cabo specializes in restoration ecology in aquatic and terrestrial systems, and in developing ecological indicators . He is a former professor at Universidad Autonoma de Tamaulipas, a former Director Department of the Environment, City of Tampico. He received his Master and Ph.D studies in Plant Biology at Universite Laval in 1991 and 1998, respectively 

Dr. Christopher A. Gabler

Dr. Christopher A. Gabler
Afiiliated Faculty

Dr. Gabler is a plant community ecologist whose research focuses on climate change, sustainable agriculture, ecological restoration, and invasive species, especially in coastal systems. He received his PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Rice University in 2012. 

Dr. Kristine L. Lowe

Dr. Kristine L. Lowe
Affiliated Faculty

Dr. Kristine Lowe is originally from Illinois and came to South Texas in 2004. She is currently a Professor and the Interim Chair of the Department of Biology for UTRGV. Her areas of expertise include microbiology, microbial ecology, and enviornmental biology. 

Dr. Pushpa Soti

Dr. Pushpa Soti

Dr. Pushpa Soti is a broadly -trained ecologist with expertise in plant-soil-microbe interactions, soil health, and nutrient management. She is generally interested in understanding the relationship between soil processes and the health and sustainability of managed and natural ecosystems. Much of her work focuses on the ecology and management of weeds and invasive plants.

UTRGV Staff

Lindsey Richards

Lindsey Richards
Research Assistant

Lindsey is a Sr. Research Technician for the Subtropical Soil Health Initiative which is studying cover crops as a cost-effective soil restoration method for farmers in south Texas by monitoring biological, chemical, and physical indicators. Her experience managing the USDA certified organic agroecology research garden, volunteering on local farms and native plant nurseries, and freelance landscaping has led her to a meaningful career in agroecology where she enjoys working with students and farmers through participatory research programs. Lindsey stays involved in her community by volunteering for a non-profit organization that focuses on sustainable food systems. On her spare time, she likes to go on long walks with her dog, paint, cook with locally grown food, watch movies, and play soccer with her lab mates in their IM soccer team, Scoreghum!

Stephanie Kasper

Stephanie Kasper

After 3 years of small farming in central Texas, Stephanie joined the Agroecology lab in 2017 and completed a masters thesis on nitrogen fixation by leguminous cover crops in May 2019. She had such a great time working with farmers and interdisciplinary researchers in the Rio Grande Valley that she jumped at the chance to stay on with the lab as a research technician. Her current projects include moisture monitoring in cover crops and soil surveying to compare dynamic soil properties across management systems and soil types in the RGV. When she's not spending time with crops for work, she's tending her 10-row front-yard farm with her lovely roommates.