Biology professor Preston Garcia has been conducting microbiology research since his time as an undergrad at James Madison University — something that he’s continued at Castleton.
Now, thanks to a $308,011 grant from the National Science Foundation, his research is funded through 2021.
“It feels amazing,” he said in a recent interview. “It has been many years in the making.”
Up until now, Garcia’s research had been funded through the Vermont Genetics Network. Unlike the VGN, however, the grant funding from the NSF is far more competitive – attracting proposals from scientists from countless schools nationally, and according to Garcia, four out of five grant applications are rejected.
“This is the fourth year in a row that I’ve applied for NSF funding, and I got it this fourth time,” he said.
Garcia’s research works with “Sinorhizobium melilot,” a nitrogen-fixing bacteria that forms a symbiotic, or long-term biological interaction, with legumes. For Castleton alum Ryan Duggan, who worked with Garcia in the lab, Garcia was an excellent mentor.
“Working in his lab has changed my whole career path,” he said. “It is clear that he has a passion for what he does, and that certainly rubs off on his students. I am ecstatic that he got this grant.”
Castleton junior Megan Nadler has worked with Garcia for two summers now – and she too says he has been an incredible mentor.
“I have worked now for two summers with Dr. Garcia and the experience I have gained has been invaluable.” she said. “He goes above and beyond to help us reach our goals, and that is something I am incredibly grateful for. There is no one more deserving of such an amazing grant.”
The full grant totals $560,082 and was shared with Arango Pindeo of St. Joseph’s University, who, Garcia says, he and his students will be working with.
“Part of this, we’re going to be physically collaborating,” he said. “We’re going to be going down to Philadelphia to work with her and her students, and they’re going to come up here for a bit.”
In addition, Garcia said this summer he is going to have high school students come up to help him with his work.
“Castleton students here will help to train and introduce high school students to real grant-funded scientific research,” he said. “I hope to do some outreach too, both with the Philadelphia people and here into high schools in Philadelphia and Vermont.”
For Andrew Vermilyea, chair of the natural sciences department, Garcia’s record for collaborating with Castleton’s students on his research is impressive.
“These students have presented their work at national conferences and gone on to graduate school and other science careers,” he said. “Dr. Garcia has gone above and beyond his teaching responsibilities in order to offer unique opportunities for Castleton students.”
For Castleton President Karen Scolforo, this grant opens doors for student research.
“This opportunity will enable students to gain experiential knowledge in a critical area, while developing skills for future projects and preparing for graduate-level work,” she said in a recent email. “Dr. Garcia’s work on behalf of our students helps to raise Castleton University to a higher level of preeminence.”
Castleton is a small school – and the main goal for professors is to teach, Garcia said. While he still does that, he said, students also get to do research alongside professors that has real impact – and the opportunity this grant provides is for Castleton as a whole.
“It’s an official stamp that we’re doing high level research that has been vetted by peers across the U.S. and the federal government,” he said. “I make that big, bold statement because if you come here and have the chance to work with me, you’re doing research that you could do at any large university in the country. That’s really important.”