College of Agriculture’s Top Undergrad Mentor
Brent Black wears many professional hats, in addition to the actual caps he wears while doing countless hours of field research every year. He is a Utah Agricultural Experiment Station researcher, a first rate teacher and the USU Extension fruit specialist and was recently named, the 2011 College of Agriculture’s Undergraduate Research Mentor of the Year.
Black was nominated by Noelle Cockett, dean of the college, UAES director and Extension vice president and several other faculty members after seeing him guide several student researchers, including two of the last four College of Agriculture Undergraduate Researchers of the Year.
Both those students, Jeremy Crook (2009-10) and Laura Wright (2007-08), received the Peak Prize which recognizes USU’s top undergraduate researchers. They also won first place in the Undergraduate Poster Competition at the American Society for Horticultural Science’s annual conference.
Black’s impressive resume doesn’t end with his mentoring work. Before his employment with USU began just over 5 years ago, Black worked for the USDA, in Beltsville, Maryland. Though he enjoyed his time there, Black said he gained an itch to teach and work with students in research settings. That desire led Black back to his alma mater, after also being courted by the likes of Virginia Tech, Washington State, and Fresno State.
Besides being the place he earned his bachelor’s degree, Black said USU had the greatest appeal among the pursuing schools for a variety of reasons.
“Other positions didn’t have extension and research split, or if they did, they were only at research campuses,” he said. “USU is a place that offers both research and extension, but I had the opportunity to stay on the main campus.”
Those that work within the college also expressed gratitude about having Black on the Aggie side.
“Brent’s got a good, active research program,” said Teryl Roper, head of the Department of Plants, Soils and Climate. “He designs projects suitable for undergraduates and identifies superior students and mentors them carefully.”
Roper thought that Black made a good decision to come back to teaching because he has a knack for it.
“He’s very willing to give guest lectures,” said Roper, who has known Black for “at least 12 years,” since Black was involved in horticulture at Michigan State, while Roper was teaching at the University of Wisconsin. The two would see each other at various horticulture professional meetings, “He teaches in the labs, but he will teach at any time to help someone and will be happy to do that. He just enjoys the vitality and energy of undergraduate students. Not everyone has that. Even working in the undergrad program, he teaches the students of the research process.”
Teaching students of the research process early in their collegiate experience is a priority for Black, along with really helping students understand how their skills translate into different niches within career fields.
“I think that, unfortunately, a lot of students don’t think about agriculture as a career, and those who are in horticulture think more about landscape,” he said. “Focus on other parts of ‘ag’ can lead to taking a different career path. For example, there are great opportunities in production agriculture where, by getting exposure, students may get themselves into a great career with more opportunities.”
It is that sort of dedication to students and the different aspects of agriculture they are studying that makes him so good, said Roper.
“Research is not just projects for (Black),” he said. “His standards for research and inquiry and being published in academic journals are what separate him from other faculty. The effort that he gives towards everything within his job description is certainly not common.”
Brent Black, 2011 College of Agriculture’s Undergraduate Research Mentor of the Year, Department of Plants, Soils and Climate
Writer: Rhett Wilkinson