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New Dean, New Direction

January 8, 2020
man and woman outside
Dean Barb Rasco presents College of Agriculture and Natural Resources award recipients to the Wyoming-Idaho football game crowd during Ag Appreciation Weekend in September.

The College of Agriculture and Natural Resources drives forward key priorities. 

By Micaela Myers 

On July 1, Barbara Rasco—an internationally recognized food scientist, engineer and attorney—took the reins as the new dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming. A sign on her desk reads, “New Dean, New Rules”—it also indicates a clear direction. Rasco hit the ground running, laying out priorities for the college and pursuing them for the betterment of the university and the state. These priorities include serving students, enhancing agriculture and ecosystems, and improving the quality of life for Wyoming’s citizens.

“Dean Rasco has already demonstrated outstanding leadership capacity for our college,” says Associate Dean and Director of UW Extension Kelly Crane. “I especially appreciate Barbara’s immediate engagement with UW Extension and her genuine commitment to serving our constituents throughout Wyoming. Her sincere efforts to understand the interests of stakeholders, students, faculty members, advisory committee members and elected officials have already fostered widespread optimism and support.”

Before joining UW, Rasco served as director of the joint Washington State University and the University of Idaho School of Food Science since 2014 and was a professor there since 1998. From 1983–98, she was a professor in the Institute of Food Science and Technology and assistant director of the Division of Aquaculture and Food Science in the University of Washington’s College of Ocean and Fisheries Sciences. She earned a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania (1979), a Ph.D. in food science and nutrition from the University of Massachusetts (1983) and a law degree from Seattle University in 1995 and is licensed to practice in Washington state and federal court, where she specializes in matters related to food and agriculture. Rasco also has private-sector experience as a biochemical engineer and a food scientist, helping hundreds of companies in the United States through outreach activities and extension programming.

“Dean Rasco also has a lot of international experience, which will undoubtedly help the state as we look to expand into foreign markets,” says Interim Associate Dean and Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station John Ritten. “I am very excited about building partnerships with stakeholders and other agencies across the state and the region—strategically and synergistically—to build programs that will be meaningful to the people of Wyoming. There is a level of optimism within the college that I haven’t seen in my time at UW.”

Rasco says, “Our goal is to be nationally preeminent in whatever we do.” This includes educating students, developing groundbreaking research, connecting with communities and partnering with industry.”

 

woman demonstrating lab techniques to small group of students
Family and consumer sciences Professor Enette Larson-Meyer demonstrates how to use a refractometer to assess urine specific gravity, a urine biomarker of hydration status. In the nutrition assessment and diagnosis course, are from left, Hope Martine, Samantha White and Brad Watts.

 

Serving Students

The college’s top priority is student access and success, including program excellence, collaboration with community colleges, and community connections to students via extension and agricultural experiment stations. Dean Rasco says that this means students can get a good education that leads to professional opportunities: “That’s our top objective.”

The college offers eight degree programs with 20 minors and three interdisciplinary degrees. It’s rebuilding teaching capacity in the key areas of rangeland resources, animal science, plant science, and family and consumer science. With additional fundraising to match a $500,000 endowment, this will include an endowed professorship in rangeland and ranch management.

Students across programs can take part in cutting-edge research as the college does its part in building university-wide research excellence. As part of its focus on education and research, the college hopes to raise money for building renovations on the main campus and at the Laramie Research and Extension Center, including upgrades to create modern laboratory spaces. Recently the Legislature appropriated $500,000 toward infrastructure needs of UW’s award-wining rodeo team, which will include assessing a Laramie location for a horse boarding facility.

A revamping of undergraduate and graduate curricula at the college will include distance and hybrid course offerings, including distance degrees and certificates.

 

Supporting Wyoming Agriculture

“With Wyoming agriculture, we are focused on agriculture production but also the interaction between animals and the environment,” Rasco says. This includes grazing on private and public land, concerns about invasive species, and wildlife-domestic animal interactions. Rasco says that this also means looking at issues that impact successful cultivation of plants and animals at high altitude. The college wants to share best practices for conservation of soil and water.

“Wyoming is a headwaters state—the source for the water that’s in many of the rivers in the U.S.,” Rasco says. Riparian zones in ranch and range environments need protection to ensure that the water quality is good not only for the ecosystem here in Wyoming but also farther downstream.

Rasco and her team work to bring different disciplines together to tackle issues: “We have folks teaching in animal science, plant science, ecosystems management and agricultural economics. They’re all approaching issues associated with animal production from a different disciplinary focus. But it all comes together—if you’re working on a ranch or as a resource manager with the BLM or state, you have to understand a little bit of all these different fields.”

Faculty and staff within the college conduct research on hydrology, invasive species, animal-forage interactions and more, while others are out in the community helping landowners with issues such as how to graze on a small holding, how to control invasive species on a small property and how to manage water.

“We have people working across disciplines and across our core land-grant mission of education and outreach and research,” Rasco says. “We’re here to serve the people of Wyoming first. If we need to pull in people of different expertise, then let’s figure out how to do so effectively.”

The college welcomed a new meat scientist, Cody Gifford, and a new meat lab manager, Kyle Phillips. The college also hosted woolgrowers over the summer and a Taiwanese delegation looking at Wyoming beef exports.

Rasco says: “We’re always looking for new ideas to get out to our producers for diversification—whether it’s business diversification, taking on new types of business enterprises, or crop diversification.”

 

woman in a field collecting samples
Plant sciences Associate Professor Randa Jabbour nets alfalfa weevils at the Powell Research and Extension Center.

Serving Wyoming

Because of the college’s academic and research focus, as well as the fact it houses UW Extension, it’s deeply tied to serving the state. Current initiatives include rural community vitality and health, youth educational programming, community development, food security and nutrition, and financial wellness.

First, Rasco wants to rebuild capacity by hiring extension educators to fill vacant positions. Extension educators live and work in all 23 Wyoming counties. Extension programming includes 4-H and youth development, agriculture, horticulture, nutrition, food safety, natural resources, ecosystems and community development education.

As college leaders rebuild Extension, they want to make it innovative and interactive for young people, such as harnessing the power of social media. “We want to look at how can we get our programming out there—how can we make it interactive for young people, for people who have just a small snippet of time to be able to learn what they might need to know,” Rasco says.

“With the community vitality initiative, we’re focusing on issues of early childhood through eighth grade education, making sure we have programs that are solid throughout the state for that age population,” Rasco says. Family and consumer science also offers programming on gerontology—helping people age in place in rural areas—as well as programs around community development and financial wellness.

The college is also working with UW’s Office of Engagement and Outreach to create a stronger regional presence throughout the state.

Rasco wants to build interdisciplinary teams to tackle focus areas: “We’re looking at combining education with research and engagement in the community.”

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