The University of Georgia puts its resources and expertise to work for communities across the state by connecting its renowned public service and outreach network with academic faculty who want to support those efforts with their research.

The interdisciplinary Rural Engagement Workshop for Academic Faculty, launched by Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost S. Jack Hu and Vice President for Public Service and Outreach Jennifer Frum, brings together academic faculty and public service faculty who have cultivated relationships with rural communities through UGA’s outreach efforts. This partnership expands the impact of UGA’s research and ties it to practical applications in rural communities across Georgia.

Provost Hu speaks to faculty during a networking event

The workshop helps academic faculty gain a greater understanding of Georgia’s rural demographics and trends, obtain key information on developing sustained relationships with communities, develop partnerships with public service faculty and enhance their ability to engage in rural research in the state.

“The Rural Engagement Workshop for Academic Faculty stands as a vital link between the University of Georgia and the communities that we pledge to serve as the state’s land-grant and sea-grant institution,” said Hu. “The program strengthens our connection to the state of Georgia and broadens the statewide impact that UGA delivers through Public Service and Outreach and Cooperative Extension.”

The workshop has had 49 participants in the first three years. The 2024 cohort, which graduated April 12, includes 14 faculty from nine UGA colleges and schools.

The 2024 workshop participants include:

  • Sudeep Bag, assistant professor at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences
  • Leonardo Bastos, assistant professor at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences
  • Joshua Caballero, associate professor at the College of Pharmacy
  • Krista Capps, associate professor at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and the Odum School of Ecology
  • Kaitlyn Casulli, assistant professor at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences
  • Christopher Cleveland, assistant professor in the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study at the College of Veterinary Medicine
  • Lu Fan, assistant professor at the College of Family and Consumer Sciences
  • Lucy Ingram, professor at the College of Public Health (UGA Foundation Professor of Human Health)
  • Niying Li, assistant professor at the College of Pharmacy
  • Doris Miller, professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine
  • Lorenzo Villa-Zapata, assistant professor at the College of Pharmacy
  • Qiong Wang, assistant professor at the College of Environment + Design
  • Keith Wilson, assistant professor at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication
  • Yingying Zeng, assistant professor at the School of Social Work

The UGA Institute of Government’s Saralyn Stafford – Assistant Director, Rural Development, speaks to faculty participants in one of the sessions.

Each year, the Office of the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost provides seed grant funding for up to 10 proposals developed by faculty teams through the workshop. More than $180,000 in funding supporting 25 proposals has already been awarded. This year, up to $70,000 in seed grants is available to fund a maximum of 10 proposals. Grants will range from $5,000 to $10,000.

Since the program began in 2021, workshop alumni have secured more than $7.9 million in subsequent funding that stemmed from projects started in the Rural Engagement Workshop.

As an assistant professor with the Department of Food Science and Technology in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, current cohort member Kaitlyn Casulli has experience working in rural Georgia through her role with Cooperative Extension. She wanted to be in the workshop to learn the most effective ways to engage with rural communities.

“This has been a really good opportunity, and I’m appreciative that it’s offered to faculty, especially for those who don’t have Extension roles or rural connections,” Casulli said. “I think it’s just a really beneficial way to bring UGA faculty into a rural community and help them carve out an applied research opportunity.”

Casulli received a $1.5 million Agriculture Innovation Center grant from the USDA that started in January. Centers use the funding to provide technical assistance to growers to market value-added agricultural products. For Casulli, that means trying to create products from blemished peanuts.

Casulli sought to amplify the research idea after she started working with a peanut farmer in middle Georgia, a connection established through the UGA Archway Partnership, a unit of PSO. The farmer is throwing away peanuts because of blemished shells that make them undesirable as boiled peanuts. With her workshop research proposal, Casulli wants to develop new products using the affected kernels. By building a partnership with the farmer, she can leverage the relationship into expanding her USDA grant work.

Newly graduated faculty pose with their certificates following equestrian leadership training at the UGA Animal and Dairy Science livestock arena. Freckles, the longtime UGA Animal and Dairy Science mascot, looks on in the background.

“What we’re proposing is taking the shell off and using the kernel inside to produce something else in our value-added food processing product,” Casulli said.

As a member of the 2022 workshop cohort, Puneet Dwivedi learned how to leverage the connections already established by the units of Public Service and Outreach and by Extension to first access communities and then gain a better understanding of rural issues and related potential solutions from community members only.

Dwivedi, an associate professor at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, is still cultivating opportunities created through the workshop as he conducts research related to forest sustainability and family land ownership across the state.

“Through the workshop, I realized how well the UGA community, especially Public Service and Outreach and Extension, is embedded into the rural system of Georgia,” said Dwivedi.

Dwivedi used his seed grant to host community workshops and gather information on forest carbon at the Mary Kahrs Warnell Forest Education Center near Savannah. Soon, Dwivedi had what he needed to submit grant proposals. He has received a combined $2.1 million in grants from the USDA Farm Services ($2 million) and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service ($100,000) to further his work.

Roy Parry
Senior Writer

Sam Perren