September 16, 2021

Cheyney’s Aquaculture Research and Education Laboratory Prepares Students to Compete for Professional Jobs in Scientific Arenas

Cheyney’s Aquaculture Research and Education Laboratory Prepares Students to Compete for Professional Jobs in Scientific Arenas

Cheyney student Kayla Cross admits she’s shy and very introverted but when she talks about her work in the university’s Aquaculture Research and Education Laboratory (AREL), she doesn’t hold back her excitement when it comes to the expanding science.

“I see it as an essential tool for alleviating poverty across the globe,” she said.

Cross, a native of North Philadelphia, is in her second year at Cheyney. The 19-year-old is a Keystone Honors Program student majoring in biology. She also works part-time in the aquaponics lab under Dr. Steven Hughes. She said neither Cheyney nor biology was part of her original college plan.

“I decided to change my major to qualify for the Keystone Honors Program here at Cheyney. At first, I wanted to attend Neumann University and become a nurse. Now I can’t imagine being anywhere but Cheyney. I’m going to be a bio-technician. Dr. Hughes talks with me often about picking a grad school when the time comes. For right now though, Cheyney is the place to be. Dr. Hughes made it possible for me to be in the aquaponics lab. When I first got here, I was very introverted. I’m still an introvert,” she said, laughing. “Dr. Hughes challenged me during classes, asking me questions on purpose to draw me out. At the end of my freshman year, he offered me a slot in aquaponics. I worked closely with him this past summer.”

For over 40 years, Dr. Hughes has been an active researcher in the science of aquaponics – specifically fish farming. Hughes says one of the reasons most African Americans don’t see a career in aquaculture is because they have never heard of it, but that’s changing. Cheyney’s AREL research facility provides opportunities for faculty and students to participate in projects through the university’s partnerships with academic, public, and private entities. These projects prepare students to compete for professional jobs in a variety of scientific arenas, while providing opportunities to share new and promising research results with consumers, the scientific community, industry representatives, and other students.

Hughes said that Cross has a very promising future in aquaponics.

“Kayla was like so many of our students in that she was not familiar with aquaponics when she first came here to Cheyney,” he said. “She has been working in the lab now for several months and does a great job. She’s learning rapidly about the ins and outs of maintaining both fish and plants and I expect that one day she will be very successful in the aquaponics world.”

Cheyney has created an academic/professional specialization in the culture of growing aquatic animals and plants in controlled environments, and Dr. Hughes has been overseeing the laboratory since 2004, preparing students for emerging career opportunities.

“The aquaculture and aquaponics labs are both coming along quite well,” said Hughes. “We are still working mostly with tilapia and koi as our fish species, but the beginning of a program where we are growing lettuce in our aquaponic system is giving us the opportunity to do so much more. Hopefully, by the end of the fall, we will have added trout to our list of fish species and maybe several other plant species to go with them.”

Cross said Dr. Hughes has given her a room of her own with 18 tanks where she grows lettuce and kale and wants to expand to include other vegetables. She said she believes aquaponic systems will change how nations feed their populations because it produces mass quantities of products faster and more efficiently. Aquaponic systems also serve as a backup plan for producers to maintain edible products just in case anything happens to the farmlands.

“Through this system, you can grow 120 heads of lettuce in a week, as opposed to a longer growing season in the soil. We can grow kale, strawberries and tomatoes,” Cross said. “By working with Dr. Hughes, I’ve learned that the benefits of this indoor urban farming system are amazing. Not only is it efficient but you don’t have to be concerned with groundhogs or insects that feed off vegetables. This is changing how we feed people. I know for a fact that this is a tool for eliminating hunger. I am so grateful that Cheyney has given me this opportunity. I will take my knowledge and skills when I graduate and continue to be in aquaponic systems to better design growing techniques and decrease hunger.”