Ph.D. student represents FIU at international Maize Genetics Conference

Lamar Burton in Paris, France.

Lamar Burton in Paris, France.

Born in the small town of Greensburg, Louisiana, Lamar Burton recalls his 40-minute walks to the nearest grocery store, seeing hundreds of horses, which he considered part of the population of 1,000. At the age of six, Burton and his parents moved to Baton Rouge to start a new chapter in their lives in hopes of better schooling and more job opportunities for the family.

Burton excelled in Baton Rouge and stayed in the city for college, where he obtained a bachelor’s in agriculture from Southern University and Agriculture & Mechanical College, a historically black college. Burton’s primary research was on precision agriculture.

In 2015, Burton presented his research on fabricating water filtrations to remove fluoride from Africa’s drinking water at the Emerging Researchers National Conference, where he met Sonja Montas-Hunter, assistant vice provost for Student Access and Success.

“Burton is a great example of how actively engaging in professional development can lead to countless opportunities,” said Montas-Hunter. “I was impressed with Burton’s passion for his research and how he presented it in a way that a non-scientist like me could understand. I invited Burton to apply to FIU and as expected, he flourished. He takes our mentorship relationship seriously, and we speak regularly about his goals.”

Through the National Science Foundation’s Bridge to the Doctorate program, Burton, his wife and his son moved to Miami, where Burton began his graduate studies in electrical engineering through the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering within the College of Engineering & Computing. The Bridge to the Doctorate program helps minority students pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degrees by providing them with a full-tuition scholarship, an annual living stipend and more.

Currently, Burton fabricates electrochemical sensors for determining nutrients in soil. At the moment, there are no platforms that allow agriculturalists and environmentalists to measure nitrates and phosphates in soil at real-time. Burton is working to deploy sensors to the field to continuously extract the data, saving time from having a person physically extract soil and bring it to a lab for observation.

This past January, Montas-Hunter received an email about the 60th Annual Maize Genetics Conference. Maize is the scientific name for corn and is studied by maize genetics researchers to keep protecting crops from new diseases and pests. The Maize Genetics Conference is an annual meeting of experienced maize genetics scientists, early career scientists and underrepresented students to learn about maize genetics and network with scientists. This year it was held in France.

“When I received the email about the Maize Genetics Conference and the travel award they were offering, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity for Burton and immediately reached out to him,” said Montas-Hunter. The MaGNET (Maize Genetics Network Enhancement via Travel) award provides funding to cover costs for the conference registration, meals during the conference, housing and travel to and from the conference. The award is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

MaGNET Program and Awardees announced at the 2018 Maize Genetics Conference.

MaGNET Program and Awardees announced at the 2018 Maize Genetics Conference.

Burton received the MaGNET award. After a nine-hour flight to Paris and a four-hour train ride to Saint-Malo, Burton made it to the conference.

Students from around the world applied for the travel award and Burton was one of only two graduate students selected. At the conference, Burton found out he was the only FIU student in attendance and also the only electrical engineer present.

Lamar Burton and his wife posing next to the Eiffel Tower.

Lamar Burton and his wife posing next to the Eiffel Tower.

“The conference was very interesting for me because of all the genetics and plant biology information presented to us by internationally-known scientists,” said Burton. “It was a rewarding experience because I got to represent FIU overseas and enjoy a city I had never visited before with my wife. I also had the opportunity to make connections with program directors from the National Science Foundation, professors from different universities and industry professionals.”

Shekhar Bhansali, Alcatel-Lucent professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, serves as the Bridge to the Doctorate program’s co-director and is also Burton’s advisor.

“Burton is a hardworking and passionate electrical engineer. I can picture him working for the Senate representing agriculture and engineering industries,” said Bhansali. “When Montas-Hunter reached out to me about Burton, I knew he’d be an excellent addition to FIU, to the Bridge to the Doctorate program and to the Bio-MEMS and Microsystems research group I lead at FIU.”