2018-19 Fellows will leverage food and water security research to engage the public

  Thursday, February 15, 2018

By News and Internal Communications

Rio Grande Valley, Texas Dr. Alex Racelis. assistant professor in the School of Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences (SEEMS) at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, is one of 15 food and water security researchers in the world named as 2018-19 Public Engagement Fellows by the Alan I. Leshner Leadership Institute of The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Racelis, whose areas of focus include agroecology, invasion ecology, biological control of invasive species, socio-ecological systems and urban ecology, said he is honored to be part of the fellowship of distinguished scientists who are at the forefront of research in food and water.

“We all are committed to improving dialogue and communication with the public and other stakeholders to broaden the impact and reach of our work,” he said. “This appointment can’t come at a more crucial time for UTRGV as we develop and implement policies to institutionalize community engagement in our college and across the university, and as we help train our faculty and our students to increase their capacity for effective community engagement and regionally relevant scholarship, in fulfillment of our new university mission.”

AAAS said the 15 scientists were chosen for having demonstrated leadership and excellence in their research careers and an interest in promoting meaningful dialogue between science and society.

The water security work of the incoming AAAS Leshner Fellows draws from varied disciplines, including anthropology, civil engineering, biological and environmental sciences, geography, hydrology, political science and economics, plant genetics and horticulture.

The AAAS Leshner Fellows program, now in its third year, builds on the long-standing commitment of AAAS to science communication and public engagement.

AAAS Leshner Fellows will meet in June at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., for a week of intensive public engagement and science communication training, networking and public engagement plan development.

“The skills and experience offered by the Leshner Fellowship will enable the sustained, strategic and scalable engagement needed to understand and address resource competition in an urbanizing world,” said Dustin Garrick, research fellow and co-director of the water program at the Smith School Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford.

Throughout the year following the training, AAAS Leshner Fellows will develop and implement public engagement activities, train other scientists in their communities and work to increase capacity for public engagement at their institutions. AAAS staff will provide ongoing support and continuing professional development throughout the fellowship.

The Leshner Leadership Institute was established in 2015 through philanthropic support. The Institute is managed by the  AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology, established in 2004 by Alan I. Leshner, now chief executive officer emeritus of AAAS.

‘‘We all are committed to improving dialogue and communication with the public and other stakeholders to broaden the impact and reach of our work
—Dr. Alex Racelis. assistant professor in the School of Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences’’


  • Alex Racelis, PhD
    Assistant Professor of Earth, Environmental, and Marine Sciences; joint appointment, Department of Biology; Associate Dean for Community Engagement and Outreach, College of Sciences, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
  • Kate Brauman, PhD
    Lead Scientist, Global Water Initiative, Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota.
  • Sarah Feakins, PhD
    Associate Professor of Earth Sciences, University of Southern California.
  • Dustin Garrick, PhD
    Departmental Lecturer and Co-Director, Smith School Water Programme, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford.
  • Kristine Hopfensperger, PhD
    Associate Professor of Biological Sciences; Director of the Environmental Science Program, Northern Kentucky University.
  • Wendy Jepson, PhD
    Professor of Geography, Texas A&M University.
  • Craig Just, PhD
    Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Iowa.
  • Michael Kantar, PhD
    Assistant Professor of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, University of Hawaii.
  • Roger Kjelgren, PhD
    Director, Mid-Florida Research and Education Center at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
  • Julie Lesnik, PhD
    Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Wayne State University.
  • Laura Schmitt Olabisi, PhD
    Associate Professor of Community Sustainability, Michigan State University.
  • Kirsten Schwarz, PhD
    Associate Professor of Biological Sciences; Director, Ecological Stewardship Institute, Northern Kentucky University.
  • Christopher Scott, PhD
    Director, Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy; Professor of Geography and Development, University of Arizona.
  • Merritt Turetsky, PhD
    Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair, Integrative Biology, University of Guelph.
  • Pei Xu, PhD
    Associate Professor of Civil Engineering, New Mexico State University.


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.