Saturday December 3, 2016

Grains of Truth: Award Honors SUNY Oswego Testing Labs

Program at college supporting Oswego port's needs
By Lou Sorendo

    SUNY Oswego students Julie Page, left, and Casey Baum


    It’s the kind of experience that can really grow on college students.

     

    SUNY Oswego's agricultural testing and analysis laboratories at the Port of Oswego Authority and on campus recently won a national award from the University Economic Development Association.

     

    The labs have met the needs of one of the port’s largest customers, Perdue AgriBusiness, while providing on-the-job business experience for undergraduates. The port is using trained student inspectors to test and analyze grain for quality, quantity and food safety.

     

    “This is a university setting that continues to respond to business and industry demand,” said Pamela Caraccioli, deputy to the president for external partnerships and economic development at SUNY Oswego. “Our students are customers, but so are future employers, so we have to know what’s going on out there.”

     

    Caraccioli noted the program was submitted for the award “because we recognized how good this was.”

     

    “I think the piece that is really important is this project could be replicated and can be scaled to any college campus and in any community given strong demand for safe food production,” she said.

     

    Under the leadership of biological sciences faculty member Anthony Contento, the two-year-old program has trained 26 students in a five-week course coupled with three weeks of on-the job mentoring to ensure excellence, consistency and safety in testing and analysis year-round, including summers, according to SUNY Oswego.

     

    “It is validating to be sure,” Contento said. “It’s not that it’s hard work because the students make it fun.”

     

    The college ultimately seeks to have its student inspectors obtain U.S. Department of Agriculture certification to provide USDA weights, grades and testing, enabling the port to export grain and increasing the volume of corn, soy and wheat passing through Oswego.

     

    The Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration establishes and maintains the official U.S. standards for grains, oilseeds, and related commodities.

     

    This is the “most important next step,” Contento said.

     

    He’s been working with federal, state and business leaders “to make sure we have as much push behind us as possible. But it’s going to take some legislative push, even if it’s just an application that has to be approved for us to get that status,” Contento said.

     

    Any agricultural company in New York state is mandated to get their grains officially graded out of state.

     

    “We want the ability to grow our agricultural sector, and in order to do that, we’re going to have to actually have more regulatory control over what happens in our state,” Contento said.

     

    “That has been our goal. So we have the growing aspect, we’re going to add the grading aspect, and then there is export potential as well for the port,” Caraccioli said. “They cannot export grain from that location without that USDA certification.”

     

    When they acquire USDA status, Contento and his team will be able to give official grades at a higher level and more-advanced analysis involving protein, oil and starch content.

     

     

    Caraccioli said Port of Oswego Executive Director Zelko Kirincich was a catalyst for the creation of program.

     

    “Perdue has a foothold there and it is a player. They bring a lot of commodity in and out of that facility,” Caraccioli said. “Zelko genuinely wanted to provide a value add to Purdue, just like he would with any good customer. You want to keep them.”

     

    A commitment of $250,000 through Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office to equip the laboratories helped the college's program seize an opportunity presented by Perdue and its commitment to reduce its energy footprint while shipping 30,000 tons of grain a year through the port to its facility in Norfolk, Va., for export, according to the college.

     

    Caraccioli said the program has direct economic development implications for Oswego County.

    “First was the immediate opportunity to meet demand by industry in a very genuine way in Central New York,” she said. “We are also realizing some potential for export opportunities at the port.”

     

    Perhaps most importantly, Caraccioli said the students engaged in the program are gaining experiential learning that will “push them into careers that are going to be in demand as we step up efforts to produce more food.”

     

    Caraccioli said SUNY Oswego is one of the top SUNY schools that place a significant emphasis on experiential learning.

     

    “We have a dedicated Center for Experiential Learning, so we offer both internships and co-ops for our students,” she said. “We can do them through our departments as well.”

     

    In terms of the future, the college is looking for grant funding to create a mobile lab that can extend the program’s outreach.

     

    With the mobile lab, Contento said the program could see action in places like the new inland port expected to be built in Syracuse or at Sunoco’s ethanol facility in Volney where a new barley malting operation is under construction.

     

    “It could also be at other venues where we can interact with the farming industry and let them know what we can do and showcase our students,” he added.

     

    Contento said the goal is to expand the labs’ scope, getting into areas such as organic, genetically modified organisms and vegan testing.

     

    Contento said he is also looking into the state’s “grown and certified” initiative.

     

    “That kind of state branding — especially overseas — is very attractive to consumers. So if we can get our farmers up to specs and teach them how to plant in a certain way and grow the right kinds of crops and take advantage of that branding, it will be more money for them and more money for the state,” he said.

     

     

    Casey Baum is participating as an intern in the program. Originally from Alexandria Bay, she is a junior at SUNY Oswego majoring in biochemistry.

     

    She has been working in the program since last April and was hired at the port in October.

     

    “I saw that I can do this for credit, and one of my friends was also doing it, so I decided it would be a really good internship opportunity as a junior,” she said. “I like the location because it’s off campus and gets me outside a little bit.”

     

    Baum intends to go into medical research, and is particularly interested in Alzheimer’s research.

     

    “I’m not entirely sure whether I’m going to medical school or enter a PhD program, it’s one of those two,” she said.

     

    “Internships are really important,” Baum said. “I think graduate schools and PhD programs are looking for extra-curriculars a lot. As a junior, I don’t need to have an internship, but it gives me a competitive edge over on others applying for programs as competitive as biochemistry degrees.”

     

    Julie Page of Whitesboro is a junior majoring in adolescent education and biology and was recently hired at the port.

     

    “I was really interested because it’s working with new equipment and gaining field experience, which is an important edge to have,” Page said.

     

    After she finishes her undergraduate work, Page intends on going straight into pursuing her master’s degree. She wants to work in New York City for a few years before seeking out a teaching job in biology at the high school level.

     

    Page said having the field experience the program offers is “really useful because a lot of teachers don’t get out there and do things before they teach, so it’s really good to have this background.”

     

    Gary Ellis, a senior chemistry major from Schenectady, started training for the program in the 2016 spring semester and began working in the fall.

     

    “I had some friends in the program that told me about it and that it was a good experience,” he said.

     

    Ellis noted the program helped him get an internship last summer.

     

    “I like meeting all the truckers. It is a new experience and they all have interesting stories,” he said.

     

    After graduation, he is going to work for Regeneron, a biotechnology company located in the Albany area. “The program helped my social skills because I got to meet new people every day at the port. In my profession, you have to be able to socialize and talk with people,” he said.

     

    In terms of the future, the college is looking for grant funding to create a mobile lab that can extend the program’s outreach.