Utah State University professor Ricardo Ramirez is an Aggie through and through.
“I should note Ricardo began his undergraduate studies as a New Mexico State University Aggie and, later, as a postdoc, was a Texas A&M University Aggie,” said USU Science Dean Michelle Baker. “But he saved the best for last by joining our faculty as a Utah State University Aggie.”
Baker listed Ramirez’s many roles — as a Biology and Ecology Center faculty member, researcher and Extension entomology specialist — as she introduced him during his Nov. 2 presentation, “A Journey to Manage Pests in the West,” as part of the university’s 2022 Inaugural Professor Lecture Series. Held at USU’s Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, the lecture was among a succession of fall gatherings coordinated by the Provost’s Office to highlight the accomplishments and academic journeys of faculty who have been promoted to full professor in the past year.
Washington State University, where Ramirez earned his doctoral degree in 2008, is the “non-Aggie” outlier in his list of university affiliations, though the entomologist is quick to point out WSU, too, is a land-grant university.
“That same land-grant mission, focusing on research, extension and other efforts to share university expertise to improve and partner with communities, is a thread that runs through my entire academic and professional experience,” Ramirez said. “Those Aggie values were instilled during my undergraduate years and still guide my efforts today.”
The self-described Army brat lived many different places during his formative years, including Germany, where he was born, and Alaska, but considers El Paso, Texas, his hometown. Ramirez was the first person in his family to attend college.
“My parents encouraged my sister and I to work hard in school and to pursue higher education, even though that wasn’t an opportunity they’d had,” he said.
Ramirez recounted the story of his great-grandparents, both orphans from Mexico who met in El Paso and built a life and family together.
“My great-grandfather was a jack-of-all-trades, acquiring skills as a barber and a tailor,” Ramirez says. “He and my great-grandmother started with nothing, and their example of determination and love is an inspiration to me.”
Entering college, Ramirez, whose interests ranged from music — he played saxophone in his high school band, where he met his future wife, Christine — to varied areas of science.
“I was interested in animals, neuroscience and initially settled on a pre-veterinarian major,” Ramirez says.
Choosing a major, along with other areas of navigating collegiate life, was foreign to the new high school grad.
“When you’re a first-generation college student and you don’t have parents or other family members or friends to explain how to get started, it can be tough,” Ramirez says. “I had a vague idea of a few areas of study and possible professions, but no knowledge of the breadth of degree offerings.”
Fortunately, the undergrad had helpful mentors at NMSU, including an entomology professor who noted the young scholar’s eagerness to learn.
“He told me, ‘You know, animals are greatly affected by arthropods,” Ramirez says. “Now, I wasn’t a kid who had loved bugs, and believe me, the giant cockroaches of Texas and the huge mosquitoes of Alaska were not my favorites.”
Yet Ramirez began working in his mentor’s research lab, joined an entomology college bowl team (which won a regional championship) and soon changed his major to agricultural biology.
“I was hooked on entomology, and it’s been my passion ever since,” he says. “My early pursuits were focused on integrated pest management, which still guides my current efforts. That is, looking beyond pesticides to ecosystem-based strategies including biological control, habitat management and cultural practices.”
Ramirez, along with USU colleagues Ryan Larsen of Extension and Scott Bernhardt of Public Health, and University of Arizona colleague Ayman Mostafa, was awarded a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant of over $850,000 to evaluate how pesticides impact the life history of predatory insect communities in alfalfa that assist in the suppression of pest insects.
In his Extension, teaching and research roles, Ramirez credits his parents with helping his shy, younger self gain the confidence to communicate with farmers, ranchers, public officials, students and colleagues.
“My parents threw me into situations — studying Tae Kwon Do, outdoor survival training in Alaska — that they knew I could handle, even though I wasn’t so sure myself,” he says. “Sure enough, I was fine, and those experiences, along with music, have pushed me to step out of my comfort zone and interact with others.”
Among those pursuits is serving as “a face” of Utah State in promotional materials.
“I’m in some USU videos, in advertisements, a billboard and in brochures describing my role as an Aggie,” Ramirez says. “It felt odd at first, but I realized it was important for others like me — members of underrepresented groups and first-generation college students — to see they belong in a university community and deserve higher educational opportunities, too. Along with sharing academic expertise, it’s part of our land-grant Aggie mission.”
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