- Author: Pamela S Kan-Rice
Yu-Chen Wang is a UC Cooperative Extension plant pathology advisor serving Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties.
Wang, who joined UC ANR in 2022, studies diseases on vegetable and berry crops.
“So far, I have been contacted by a wide range of growers – including those who grow lettuce, broccoli, pepper, celery, bean, apple, strawberry and blackberry – about their disease problems. I am passionate about providing insight to help the community on their disease problems.”
“The lettuce industry here is suffering from impatiens necrotic spot virus (INSV) vectored by Western flower thrip along with soilborne diseases,” she said. The INSV caused lettuce growers in the Salinas Valley to lose an estimated $50 million to $100 million in 2021 and consumers to experience a shortage of lettuce.
Science piqued Wang's interest when she was in high school in Taipei, Taiwan. “We learned a lot about biology, chemistry and physics,” she said. “Observation of nature brings many questions. I was inspired by the power of science and research giving answers.”
Wang earned bachelor's and master's degrees in horticultural and crop science at National Taiwan University. She earned a second master's degree in plant protection from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.
She enjoys working as a UC Cooperative Extension plant pathology advisor.
“This is a fun job that uses scientific skills to help people,” Wang said. “I enjoy serving and helping the community, and at the same time understanding how things work.”
For girls who aspire to be scientists, Wang advises them, “Don't get bothered with the gender stereotypes. If science is your passion, follow and pursue your passion. Gender is never the limitation.”
- Author: Heidi Holmquist, UCCE San Diego
When he's not swinging over pools of water or navigating past other obstacles on American Ninja Warrior, Eric Middleton, UC integrated pest management advisor for San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties, can often be found examining plants for insect pests.
Middleton, known as Bug Ninja on the TV competition, studies biological control in ornamental plant production. Insects chew on nursery plants, robbing them of their beauty so they can't be sold. He is comparing the efficacy and cost of using beneficial arthropods and pathogens in place of chemical pesticides and conventional management practices so he can share the findings with the growers and communities he serves.
Many people supported him on his road to success as a well-rounded scientist, Middleton said.
The path to entomology
Middleton was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, to scientist parents whom he considers the biggest influence on his career. More so than teachers, his parents were the ones who molded his interest in academics and science. At a young age, Middleton became interested in the scientific process and was intrigued by questions that nobody knew the answers to.
However, his path to a career in entomology was not always clear. “For quite a while I thought I would be a herpetologist because I liked snakes, but I didn't have a specific goal in mind for what I wanted to do.” In late high school and early college, Middleton dreamed about being a stuntman, but never seriously considered it as a career.
Middleton came to a crossroads with the trajectory of his career at his undergraduate college orientation at the University of Utah. He knew he wanted to be a scientist of some kind and that he enjoyed several different scientific disciplines, but the pressure was on to choose a major when orientation staff were dividing people into groups based on the major they wanted to pursue.
“Biology majors this way, psychology majors that way,” they directed students. Interested in both biology and psychology, Middleton momentarily froze, mentally contemplating the gravity of his next decision. It was a very literal “choose which direction you want your life to go” moment, Middleton said. As the two groups began walking in different directions, he was forced to make his choice, and ultimately walked away with the biology group.
Looking back at this moment which many young scholars experience, Middleton knows that he could have been happy in several different areas of study as long as he was still practicing science. Of course, Middleton is very content with where he ended up. “I'm glad I went with the biology group which ultimately led to entomology.”
Getting the teaching bug
After graduating with a B.S. in biology from the University of Utah, Middleton was accepted into the University of Minnesota where he earned his Ph.D. in entomology. In his doctoral program, Middleton got the opportunity to create and teach an entirely new undergraduate course.
“For a semester, I designed and taught a course on “Insect Warriors,” which consisted of the various ways insects fight each other and how they have been used in human warfare,” Middleton said, noting that fleas were infected to carry bubonic plague and flies to spread cholera during World War II and that the Romans launched beehives from catapults to disrupt enemy troop formations.
Middleton also had the students run and jump, then compared their results first to the world records for humans and for insects. “Of course, the insects always perform much better given their weight and size,” he said. “That was a great and unique experience and was a ton of fun.”
The support of his parents, teachers and other mentors along the way helped to develop Middleton into a leader passionate about understanding the natural world. “While I think bugs and agriculture are very interesting and important, the thing I am most passionate about is how we come to understand things and how to rigorously test to make sure we actually understand them.”
Collaborating with growers on research
Today, Middleton collaborates on integrated pest management research and helps Southern California growers establish IPM practices in their crops.
Middleton is currently working on four main projects. The first project is a study on agave mites and how best to manage them in ornamental agave production. The second project is a community-participation science project with the UC Master Gardeners to determine if African tulip trees have a negative impact on native pollinators in Southern California.
His biggest and third project is a USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant-funded study on small-scale urban agriculture. The goals of this project are to determine if small-scale, urban production is economically feasible for people trying to make money, and to figure out scale-appropriate pest, water and nutrient management.
Middleton's latest project is studying the ability of predatory Amblyseius mites to control agave mites.
While the impacts of his service at UC Cooperative Extension have been invaluable, there is always more work to be done, according to Middleton. “There is simply too much need for me to meet. Lots of people need help with pest management, and there are so many different areas that I could devote huge amounts of time to. It's pretty hard to say ‘no' and to prioritize only the most important things or the things I think I can help the most with.”
Outside of his career, Middleton still enjoys insects, agriculture and the outdoors. “My wife and I just got a new house and are in the process of turning the backyard into a food forest. That is a ton of fun and is very gratifying to work on.”
Competing on an eight season of American Ninja Warrior
Outside of work, Middleton's main hobby is running obstacle courses.
“I've always loved climbing on things and running amok, so it was a great fit for me. I've been lucky enough to get to compete on the TV show American Ninja Warrior every year since I started getting into obstacle courses back in grad school. That has been a crazy experience, both very fun and very stressful. But one of the most fun parts has been getting to share my love of entomology on a national stage and getting the two hosts, Matt and Akbar, to eat cooked insects if I complete the obstacle courses. Getting to compete and do so well on American Ninja Warrior is a very big source of pride. It was something I never would have thought was possible growing up, and also fits well with my pipe dream of being a stuntman.”
Although Middleton just joined UC Cooperative Extension in 2022, with his passion for entomology, he is already helping Southern California growers manage agave and aloe mites. To follow his research on biological control of thrips, mealybugs and spider mites in ornamental production, subscribe to his YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/@emiddleton_ucce or follow him on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/dungbeetlestrong. His seminars on best management practices for current and potential invasive pests will be posted on the UCCE San Diego events calendar at https://cesandiego.ucanr.edu. To watch him tackle obstacle courses, tune into NBC's American Ninja Warrior in 2024.
- Author: Michael Hsu
Community nutrition and health advisor builds bridges across cultures in Tulare, Kings, Fresno and Madera counties
At a young age, Irene Padasas – UC Cooperative Extension community nutrition and health advisor for Tulare, Kings, Fresno and Madera counties – saw first-hand how environmental health conditions can impact a family's choices.
When she was in fourth grade, her parents moved their family from bustling Manila, capital of the Philippines, to a small town on a distant island. Her younger brother, who had been hospitalized at age 3 for a year due to complications from meningitis, had to re-learn how to walk and talk.
Padasas' mother hoped that leaving the more polluted urban environment would benefit his long road of rehabilitation. “The decision was made to ensure a better quality of life for my brother,” Padasas said. “So my parents decided to just move to the countryside.”
The family settled in a beach town in largely rural Aklan province, near the center of the Philippine archipelago.
“There are advantages living in a place like that, where you're close to nature; there's not much traffic; the community is very tight,” Padasas said. “You feel like you're part of this small community where everybody is looking after each other.”
Contributing to that sense of community – and cultivating close relationships to ensure the health and well-being of all – are just some of the reasons why Padasas chose her line of work in Cooperative Extension.
Padasas oversees the delivery of two federal nutrition programs in her region – CalFresh Healthy Living, University of California and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program. She develops, provides and evaluates Extension programs in partnership with the diverse populations of the Central Valley, including a variety of Latino, Mexican Indigenous and Asian communities.
Despite differences in culture and background, Padasas works to find common ground and build bridges – often through a joke and a laugh.
“Humor is such a big part of Filipino culture; with the challenges that I encountered in life, humor was so important in getting through and bouncing back,” she said. “That part of my culture is an important aspect of me to build relationships and genuine connections and introduce the work that we do; they don't see us as a ‘researcher from University of California,' they see us just like them, just like anybody else in the community.”
Growing up near both the beach and farmland in Aklan, Padasas feels an affinity for the agricultural landscapes and lifestyles in the San Joaquin Valley. She remembers feeding her family's chickens and pigs and playing among the neighbors' cows and water buffalo.
“I feel like whenever I drive to different places here in the Central Valley, it reminds me a lot of my childhood back in the day,” she said.
Nevertheless, Padasas misses the food in the Philippines – especially the seafood that she grew up eating, succulent prawns and enormous fish found nowhere in California.
“We would wait by the shore for whatever the fishermen would sell – it's really fresh fish, literally fresh from the boat,” she recalled.
Mealtimes were central in the childhood of Padasas and her siblings, who both live in the Philippines and help care for their parents; her brother is an engineer and her older sister is a teacher. Food was and remains a focal point for sharing and connecting, within their household and across the culture.
“When I was growing up, my parents made sure we were spending time as a family, eating together during dinner and sharing special meals on weekends,” Padasas said.
Chance encounter leads to an Extension career
Padasas returned to the Manila metro area for college, at the University of the Philippines Dilliman, where she earned a bachelor's degree in special education. After working as a special ed teacher for about seven years, she went to graduate school at Ateneo de Manila University for her master's in developmental psychology.
Originally intending to pursue a career as a child psychologist, Padasas said her path changed when she met Maria de Guzman, a University of Nebraska professor and Ateneo de Manila alumna, who returned to her alma mater to present her research on “yayas” – live-in caregivers for children in the Philippines.
Intrigued by that study, Padasas leaped at the opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. with de Guzman at Nebraska, where she would write her doctoral dissertation on social capital – such as personal relationships and networks – as predictors of college success for underrepresented minority students.
It was also de Guzman, herself an Extension specialist, who guided Padasas on that career track.
“I knew at that time I wanted to work in Extension, but it was a vague concept to me because in the Philippines we don't have Extension as part of the university,” Padasas explained. “Dr. de Guzman was the one who really introduced me to Extension.”
During graduate school in Nebraska, Padasas gained valuable experience working with a diverse range of ethnic minorities and refugees, including Latinos, Filipinos, Yazidis and Congolese. She especially enjoyed working with children and teens – a favorite aspect of her work that continues to this day. Padasas said that, when given the opportunity to discuss her academic background, she mentions her educational experience to young people.
“I always make sure to talk about my work as a research scientist – to encourage these kids, especially those from underrepresented minority groups, to see themselves in my shoes, to show them that: ‘You could also become like me, a person of color, a researcher, and that's not an impossible path for you,'” Padasas said.
That academic track – and her entire life's journey – have prepared Padasas well for her current role, within an organization that spans the state of California and all its diverse communities.
“I think that's the beauty of the work that we do at UC ANR,” she said. “We are provided with so many opportunities to connect and to create impact for so many people across different populations.”/h3>/h3>
- Author: Mike Hsu
If you're on a video call with Glenda Humiston when she's in her home office, you'll see the sign right above her left shoulder, prominently displayed: “4-H CLUB MEMBER LIVES HERE.”
It's the same sign that hung on her childhood home in Mancos, Colorado, in the remote southwest corner of the state. And the sign is a symbol of the influential role 4-H has played in the life and career path of Humiston, University of California's vice president for agriculture and natural resources.
“I asked if I could have it, and my dad was like, ‘Yeah, sure, I think it belongs with you' – which really annoyed my sisters, quite frankly,” she said with a laugh. “But I love having it.”
Humiston – and all four of her younger sisters – were active in 4-H during the late 1960s and 1970s. Joining the Mancos club as soon as she was able to, at roughly nine years of age, Humiston participated through high school. She even did collegiate 4-H at Colorado State University.
For National 4-H Week (Oct. 1–7), Humiston – who leads UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, the umbrella organization under which California 4-H operates – sat down for an interview about the profound impact of 4-H on her life.
You started out by showing dairy cattle and beef cattle, but you quickly broadened the scope of your 4-H experience. What else did you do in 4-H?
I did a lot of projects, not just showing the livestock – I did veterinary sciences; I did demonstration talks; I did conservation; I did woodworking. In fact, I got Reserve Grand Champion at the Colorado State Fair in woodworking one year. I made a tack box for showing livestock; I did some inlaid imagery in it. I also did a nice piece that I donated to the National 4-H Center in D.C. that, for many years, was their big artwork in the lobby that you see when you enter. [See photo at right.]
I also really enjoyed public speaking; I competed in that. Part of that was strategic – everybody turns in beef or something like that, and not very many kids were doing record books on public speaking, so I thought it gave me better odds. [Record books are kept by 4-H participants to document their progress on a project and can be submitted for competitions.]
I actually have one of my speeches about being an environmentalist when I was quite young. A little ahead of my time there. My mother said I was a very preachy child – and that was one of the times that I was!
Of the many wonderful experiences you had, what are some of your favorite aspects and memories of 4-H?
I really love the record book. I think that's one of the things about 4-H that makes it different than a lot of other youth programs. We were taught to keep a record – particularly important for showing market animals – including accounting and keeping our books: like how much did we spend on that animal and on feed and equipment. At a young age, you're learning a lot of life skills that way.
And things like the community engagement, the public speaking, these are all important skills that you just don't get unless you're out there actually doing something with it. Sitting in a classroom is not the same.
How did 4-H open your eyes to the possibility of college?
As a young person, I wasn't even thinking about college so much – I like to say that one of the reasons I even thought about going to college was 4-H, because we used to go to the Colorado State University campus in the summer for the state 4-H conference. Staying in the dorms, wandering around the campus and having the meetings there – meeting kids from all over the state – it made me feel like, “Wow, I could do this!”
I'm the first one in my family ever to go to college, and there just wasn't anybody in the family to talk about what that involved or what it looked like or anything.
That's why nowadays I think our “Juntos” program is so important. I love that we take Latino kids to a UC campus. I think the numbers I've seen are at the beginning of the week, something like 20% of them think they might go to college, and at the end of the week it's jumped to something like 80 or 90%. It makes a big difference, having the chance to see and feel.
How have you seen 4-H evolve and change, and how will it continue to adapt to the times?
I love the fact that we're doing these SPIN clubs – these special projects that are a little shorter term. I think that's a great evolution. Not every family in this day and age can sign up for the whole-year, club program. That's a lot for parents to take on being volunteers and project leaders.
Having the in-school and after-school options and six-week and nine-week options opens it up to a lot more kids. And frankly if we can get them interested in the short-term special projects, then maybe they will join the club program.
I love the fact, too, that 4-H really tries to be inclusive. 4-H has really been always very inclusive; I actually was invited to be a keynote speaker at a conference in Ohio – at The Ohio State University – about four years ago. Several states got together to talk about LGBTQ 4-H kids and youth, what were the challenges they were facing and how we were serving them. I thought it was fantastic that Ohio State and these other universities put on that event; conversations were mostly about making sure those youth felt safe participating in 4-H. It's vital that we all strive to ensure that 4-H is for everybody.
Now we would like to hear from you, 4-Hers! Tell us how 4-H has made an impact in your life, and share a favorite memory or two, by posting in the Comments box at the bottom of this story./h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>
- Author: Mike Hsu
Between 4th and 8th grade, Brent Hales had acquired from those years in 4-H a lifetime's worth of skills, a group of lifelong friends, an expanded perspective on the world – and the track suit of his dreams.
The middle child of seven kids, young Brent knew his family couldn't afford to buy a track suit off the rack. So he saved up money, bought the Navy blue fabric and pattern, and took on sewing as one of his many 4-H projects during the 1980s. Just one problem: he ended up making it inside-out, with the fuzzy side facing outward.
“And then, by the time I actually completed it, I had outgrown it, so I gave it to my younger brother,” Hales recalled with a laugh.
Hales still enjoys sewing, although he rarely finds time for it, given his many duties as UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' associate vice president for research and Cooperative Extension.
One of his responsibilities is helping to oversee the 4-H program in California, which, along with its counterparts across the country, is celebrating National 4-H Week Oct. 1–7. In a recent interview, Hales shared some of his favorite experiences as a 4-H club member growing up in Aurora, Utah, as well as some of the enduring impacts from his participation.
The mere mention of 4-H must bring back a torrent of memories, images and stories. Can you share one experience that stands out for you?
At the end of the summers, the leader of our horse club, Dan Thompson, would take us on a weeklong horse ride. In order to qualify, you had to demonstrate horsemanship, you had to be able to take care of your horse, and show a certain amount of leadership.
Dan had the kids take the lead; he planned the route but then he would ride in the back. Each day of the horse ride, we would take turns at various aspects of leadership within the week. We would get to a point and we would discuss where we were going; we would discuss points along the trail that we needed to be looking for. But, invariably, all with him in the back, allowing us to lead. He wanted us to lead the whole thing.
You could imagine sending a group of 11-, 12-, 13-year-old kids on a weeklong horse ride with a guy would be daunting enough. But the most important thing you need to understand is the amount of trust that we had in him, he had in us, and our parents had in him – because Dan was blind.
He had gone blind late in life. He knew the trails well enough that he could describe what we were going to see, and he could describe where we were going to stay, but he left it up to us to share information and lead.
You think about the types of skills that it taught us – I have cold chills thinking about that – and the confidence that it instilled in us was so powerful. In a community where less than half of the kids went on to a four-year degree program, all 11 of us in the horse club completed four-year degrees, and all of us are continuing to be very successful.
In addition to leadership skills, public-speaking skills, sewing skills and horsemanship…what else did 4-H teach you?
We actually got involved quite a bit in the arts – the visual arts, the performing arts. Because of that, I went to college on a vocal performance scholarship, which I tie right back to 4-H.
We put on an annual musical at the county fair, which translated to being involved in musicals at school and other performing groups. It paved the way for me to go to a much better school than probably was in my academic trajectory otherwise, so I went to BYU as an undergrad.
I realized very quickly how out-classed I was in terms of the vocal performance and ultimately changed majors – but I stayed involved and had the opportunity to do quite a bit of traveling and touring with various musical groups. In the last three years, I've sang at both Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, as part of ensembles and groups. What a long tail my 4-H involvement has had, in encouraging my love of music and of performing!
In what other ways did 4-H shape who you are today, personally and in your career trajectory?
My hometown of Aurora was settled by my fourth great-grandfather, so I was actually related to about 85% of that small town. And so I had a very myopic view of what the world looked like.
What 4-H did was it showed me that there's a much larger world out there. Because of 4-H, I engaged with different kids from different backgrounds, different ideologies, different life expectations than that of my own. And it opened a world I never knew existed, number one, and that I had a place in that world.
So the thought of moving from my safe, rural community…when I was a little kid, that was the last thing that I wanted. But after engaging with kids from not just across Utah, not just across the country, but across the world, it created a hunger in me to learn and to know and to experience. And that has yet to be satisfied!
Every time I remember and relive my 4-H years, I'm reminded of why I do this job – to enable others, perhaps, to be that kid that I was, and see beyond what their worldview is, or the limitations of their culture, identity and hometown.
On top of your 4-H role as a part of the leadership team at UC ANR, you're also on the strategic planning board for the national 4-H organization. How has 4-H continued to evolve over the years?
With COVID, when I was at Penn State, we shifted online and we saw a whole new generation of kids who would not have ever joined 4-H as a result. We created statewide programs, instead of the traditional clubs, and that brought together kids who normally would not have been drawn to it. And instead of meeting face-to-face, we met virtually and we sent out activity boxes ahead of time. Then, post-COVID, what surprised us is that the online clubs – the clubs we kind of anticipated going away – those actually continued to grow.
So how we reach the kids has evolved as much as the type of kids that we are seeing come in. And it has had to – if we marketed 4-H to an ever-shrinking rural population of on-farm kids, it would quickly become irrelevant. And so the way we market to them, the way we bring them in, the way we encourage and facilitate discussion, the way topics and areas of interest are identified – those continue to evolve and I hope will drive the next iteration of what 4-H looks like. Because it doesn't look anything like what I grew up with – granted, that was a long time ago, over 40 years ago! And I would say in 10 years 4-H probably won't look like what it looks like now. And that's a good thing./h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>