Graduate Ag Research Spotlight:
“I like to think that my research helps to achieve food security by improving nutrition and having safe food for everyone. I am helping to get closer to that goal.” —Enrique Velasco, MS student, Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture
Enrique Velasco’s hometown of Cochabamba, Bolivia, lies in a valley adjacent to the Andes. His main exposure to agriculture, he says, was as a student at Zamarano, a Honduras-based university that draws agricultural students from throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean. Velasco studied agribusiness management, which he sought to balance with a horticulture-focused project in the internship that Zamarano requires before graduation. “I knew about the work of my current advisor, Ariana Torres,” he says. Torres, associate professor of horticulture and agricultural economics, is a Zamarano alumna. “I asked my internship mentor if I could apply to Purdue to see if there was a chance to work with Dr. Torres. She was looking for an intern, so everything aligned for me. Once I arrived here, I worked really hard to get my shot for a master’s degree.” Velasco completed his internship in spring semester 2019 and continued to work on his thesis — on the economic impact of plant growth regulators — after he returned to his home university. He presented his research at an American Society for Horticultural Sciences conference, earned his bachelor’s degree, and returned to Purdue in January 2020 to begin his master’s program with Torres’s guidance. “Grad school is a big learning curve, and I think Dr. Torres has helped push me into being a better researcher,” he says.
Velasco’s research focuses on consumer perceptions of food safety, specifically fresh vegetables. To better understand consumer preferences, he clustered a range of variables related to nutrition, environment, food labeling, and government regulations and procedures. After studying consumer behavior and qualitative methods, he developed a national survey in which consumers prioritized the variables. He has analyzed data from about 1,700 respondents and is writing his results. Velasco says combining this horticulture and agricultural economics focus with his agribusiness background has strengthened his ability to communicate through extension and helped prepare him as a teaching assistant for Horticulture 101.
Velasco wrote three extension articles for the landscape industry based on his internship work on plant regulators. “Extension has been the best way for me to get in learn how to jump from academia to the real world — to translate what we have done to something reachable for farmers, for consumers,” he says. Presenting at conferences has boosted his English proficiency as well as his confidence, and he earned honors in the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association graduate student extension competition.
Velasco hasn’t decided on next steps and plans to explore both PhD programs and opportunities in industry. Outside of the department, he most enjoys spending time with friends and his involvement with the Association of Zamorano Alumni. He is also an avid outdoor cyclist and runner who has set his sights on future triathlons. “Sports have helped me with management of stress and my mental health and focus,” he says.