PROSSER, Wash. — When Alfredo “Freddy” Reyes was working in Yakima Valley orchards as a youth, he didn’t know he’d someday be studying the science behind tree fruit crops.
Now he’s gaining valuable agricultural experiences in the field and lab through an internship program at Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center (IAREC) in Prosser.
Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Reyes’ internship is a first-of-its-kind partnership between WSU and Heritage University. The post-baccalaureate program helps students from underserved communities gain research experiences with faculty and learn about WSU graduate degree options that support better career opportunities. Interns are encouraged to share their findings at Extension field days and present project results at industry meetings and professional conferences.
“One of our goals is learning how we can best provide students from underserved communities with opportunities to pursue higher education in STEM fields,” said WSU IAREC director Naidu Rayapati.
From the orchard to the lab
Reyes grew up in the Yakima Valley, harvesting apples, cherries, pears, and more from a young age. He witnessed the work involved in agriculture but was unaware of science’s vital role in the industry.
A McNair Scholar and first-generation college student, Reyes graduated from Heritage University earlier this year with a bachelor’s degree in biology. An interest in scientific findings and the role they play in everyday life drew him to the field.
Reyes was a college junior when the pandemic hit in 2020, causing him to miss out on crucial in-person lab work. NSF was looking to financially support post-baccalaureate students who had missed out on such experiences.
“This internship provides much-needed in-person lab time that can help Freddy in future graduate and career pathways,” said Bob Kao, an associate professor of biology at Heritage University who, as Reyes’ academic advisor, applied for the NSF funding on his behalf.
Reyes started working with the WSU team at the beginning of July and has already participated in a variety of projects including apple data collection, drone technology evaluation, sweet cherry harvesting, and a horticultural engineering experiment involving a handheld shaking tool that harvests fruit from branches.
“It’s a really cool opportunity,” Reyes said of the year-long internship. “I’m thankful for those who’ve allowed me to discover my interests.”
The program also lets him learn while being close to family. “I don’t want to leave my community,” he said. “This is where I want to give back.”
Reyes is working with WSU Department of Horticulture professor and Extension specialist Matthew Whiting and assistant professor and tree fruit Extension specialist Bernardita Sallato. Whiting and Sallato have distinct programs within WSU IAREC but frequently collaborate and share lab facilities.
“Freddy is fantastic,” Whiting said. “He showed up the first day and got involved in different types of research right off the bat. He has taken on many new challenges and handled it exceedingly well. He’s a hard worker, does well independently, and connects easily with other students.”
As someone of Hispanic origin, Sallato finds it especially rewarding to help students from underserved communities who frequently face barriers to education.
“It’s very gratifying to provide support,” she said, adding that individuals with a background in agricultural labor frequently benefit her tree fruit program because of the hands-on experience they bring to the table.
A promising future
The internship program will help WSU and specifically the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS) by enhancing graduate student recruitment and highlighting the university’s prioritization of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“By focusing on students from underserved communities, WSU is showcasing how it is addressing equity,” Rayapati said.
The program will also foster a continued partnership between Heritage University and WSU IAREC, Kao said.
Reyes can picture an academic future at WSU.
“I’d really like to do my graduate studies through WSU’s agriculture program,” he said. “This is where I would feel comfortable and successful. It’s the area I want to be in.”
“If everything goes well and Freddy decides to pursue a graduate degree with WSU, he could become an ambassador in terms of what we offer and how students can benefit,” Rayapati said. “As long as students are satisfied, excited, and see value in these experiences, that makes us enthusiastic about pursuing similar opportunities in the future.”