Big Challenges; CASNR researchers contribute to Rural America Initiative
By: Karen Michael
Situated within rural America, Texas Tech University is responding to rural challenges, with researchers in many specialties coming together to partner with rural communities, civic organizations and industries to develop models for change.
"Texas Tech researchers in science, technology, innovation, education and health are working on dynamic projects with impacts beyond the university and the region," said Joseph Heppert, vice president for Research and Innovation at Texas Tech. "Investing in rural America is an investment in our nation's future," he said.
Water is perhaps the defining natural resource in rural agricultural areas. Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the freshwater supplies in America, and rural areas are seeing the increased demands firsthand. With water being such a critical resource, researchers in Tech's College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources are looking for ways to increase water efficiency in crops.
Luis Herrera-Estrella, the President's Distinguished Professor of Plant Genomics, is working to use cotton as a model system to develop technologies applicable to all crops grown in conditions of drought, heat and salinity.
Herrera-Estrella, who also serves as director of the university's new Institute of Genomics for Crop Abiotic Stress Tolerance, hopes to develop technologies that will make genetic changes to plants easier and faster.
Genomes of organisms are like a book, he said, and the alphabet of that book is four letters. In building words from those four letters, the order of the letters is what makes the word, and the word is each gene that plays a function, Herrera-Estrella explained.
"If you change the letters, you can change the message. And in that way, you can improve tolerance to drought or salinity," he said. "First, you have to understand which letters you have to choose."
Among other critical areas Texas Tech experts are focusing include:
• Energy: Rural Americans spend a larger percentage of their income on energy bills than the average American family, posing a significant challenge to some families and businesses. "Upgrading and maintaining the energy infrastructure in those areas is costly for those communities," said Stephen Bayne, a professor in Tech's College of Engineering. Rural infrastructure has been in place for a long time and needs to be upgraded, he said. In the case of power outages, he said rural communities take a lot longer to get back up on the grid. Bayne is working to increase grid resiliency, integrating solar power into weak grids that are far from the energy source, batteries and microgrids.
• Health: Texas Tech researchers are working to help rural health concerns in a variety of ways. Access to health care is difficult to find for rural residents. Many patients at Tech's University Medical Center travel hours from rural Texas areas and even from New Mexico for treatment of traumatic injuries. Billy Philips, director of the F. Marie Hall Institute for Rural and Community Health at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, is involved in the Next Generation 911 project. Through the project, EMS units in rural West Texas have been equipped with telemedicine equipment and advanced technologies that use cell signals to transmit information ahead of time to the emergency rooms where trauma patients will arrive so health care workers can begin planning and preparing for that arrival.
• Education: Rural communities face significant challenges in terms of educational opportunities for students, who make up 20 percent of the students in the nation. While there is a real shortage of teachers in rural Texas, Bret Hendricks, associate dean for academic and student affairs in Tech's College of Education, said sometimes people in rural communities want to stay there, but there are not opportunities for them to stay. Mental health and a declining state of school buildings is also a problem in education. "We want to make life easier in rural communities," Hendricks said. "We feel very strongly that the fabric of where we come from in West Texas is based upon rural communities." Texas Tech is looking specifically at how to prepare teachers to survive and thrive in rural America.
CONTACT: Glen Ritchie, Chair, Department of Plant and Soil Science, Texas Tech University at (806) 742-2838 or email@example.com
1118NM19 / For a full-text version of Karen Michael's story in Texas Tech Today, please click here
- Agricultural & Applied Economics
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