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Faculty Panelists

During the faculty panel discussion, the faculty partners, from HBCUs/MSIs and Virginia Tech, will share their experiences and insights about inter-institutional research collaboration.

The panelists are among the faculty members whose research projects have been funded through Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) Diversity and Inclusion Seed Investment Program and are able to present different indicators of successful collaboration.

This discussion aims to foster a conversation about collaboration across institutions and its challenges, and provide insights into facilitating partnership between HBCUs/MSIs and PWI.     

You'll find more about the panelists below.

Head shot of Dr. John Ignosh

John Ignosh is an Advanced Extension Specialist at Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and College of Engineering, Department of Biological Systems Engineering, and Virginia Cooperative Extension. His extension program focuses on the implementation of best management practices related to energy efficiency, renewable energy, and adoption of innovative technologies.

Prior to his current role, Ignosh conducted air quality research with University of California, Davis and served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Guatemala. Heis a Certified Energy Manager and Distributed Generation Certified Professional by the Association of Energy Engineers, credentialed as a Photovoltaic Associate by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, and is a Certified Forester by the Society of American Foresters.

Head shot of Dr. Kalpatha Melmaiee
Latha Melmaiee

Latha Melmaiee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Delaware State University. Her current research interests focus on application of molecular and classical plant breeding tools for improvement of blueberry, strawberry and other small fruit crops. 

Melmaiee obtained her doctoral degree from Oklahoma State University in plant sciences, worked in University of Northern Iowa and Iowa State University before coming to Delaware State. She came to Delaware State University in 2008. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Sciences and Masters in Genetics and Plant Breeding from India. Then she worked as Research Associate in International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) for three years.

In addition to her research programs she was also dedicated  considerable efforts in co- coordinating several undergraduate scholarship programs including NSF REU, Northeast Woody/Warm-Season Biomass Consortium (NEWBio), EPSCoR scholars and Farm Experiences programs over the years and helped facilitate more than 200 student opportunities for students at DSU and around the country. 

head shot of Dr. Reza Rafie

Since 2007, Reza Rafie has held a faculty position with Virginia State University College of Agriculture-Cooperative Extension Department, and currently holds the title of Professor –Horticulture Extension Specialist. His current research and extension interest is working with high value specialty crops, in particular, berry crops, including blueberry, strawberry, blackberry and raspberry. Rafie takes a marketing approach in identifying crops with proven market trend potential that will ultimately help growers’ bottom-line. He has many years of international experience and in the past has worked with privately owned fresh fruits and vegetables companies.

Profile photo of Dr. Jayesh Samtani

Jayesh Samtani is an Assistant Professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech. Samtani is located at the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Virginia Beach and the focus of his appointment is on small fruit production. The mission of his program is to develop an integrated research and outreach program that yields sustainable solutions to commercial berry growers while ensuring the economic viability of berry production. The specific focus of his program is in the areas of (i) biofumigation, (ii) cultivar evaluation, (iii) season extension, and (iv) supplementary nutrient application.

Additionally, Samtani provides information on small fruit production to home and community gardeners, particularly those living in geographic areas identified as food deserts.  Samtani has active projects with faculty and their students at Virginia State University and Delaware State University.

Headshot of Dr. Sanju Sanjaya, smiling broadly and wearing glasses

Sanju Sanjaya earned his Ph.D. in Applied Botany from the University of Mysore, before continuing his research into bioenergy and biotechnology at various prestigious institutions across the globe. He is currently Assistant Professor at the Energy and Environmental Science Institute of West Virginia State University. Here, Sanjaya leads an active research group that aims to enhance the bioenergy, nutritional value, industrial compounds, and phytoremediation of plants using genetic and molecular techniques. Sanjaya’s research is vital to increasing the sustainability and production of these plants. He has been granted patents for his work and has shared his research findings through publications in numerous influential journals.

Photo of Dr. Toktam Taghavi in a greenhouse

Toktam Taghavi is an assistant professor of Horticulture/Postharvest at Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia. She leads the Postharvest Research Program focusing on postharvest techniques to maintain the quality of fresh produce during harvest, postharvest handling and storage and reduce waste. Previously Taghavi was an adjunct faculty at the University of Guelph, Canada where she was part of a team working to develop production practices and cultivar development for small fruits and nuts.

Her postdoctoral study was at University of Florida, where she researched strawberry plant nutrition at molecular level and compared nitrogen uptake and reduction capability of wild and cultivated strawberries in support of ongoing strawberry breeding programs in Florida. She also has worked at University of California, Davis as part of her Ph.D. research project to study nitrate uptake and nitrate reductase activity in strawberries under different nitrate regimes. She can be reached at

headshot of Dr. Gregory Wellbaum, smiling

Gregory E. Welbaum, Professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Science, is a former commercial vegetable grower whose family farm has been involved in crop production for several generations.  He has taught classroom and online courses on vegetable crops, vegetable seed production, and medicinal plants and herbs at Virginia Tech for over three decades. He is the author of text and reference book Vegetable Production and Practices.  His research areas include sustainable vegetable production technologies, alternative seed treatments to enhance vigor and protect against disease, and the molecular genetics of cucurbit species. 

Headshot of Dr. Bingyu Zhao wearing glasses and a slight smile

Bingyu Zhao is an associate professor of the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech. His research program is focusing on improving plant disease resistance by integration of plant breeding, genomics, and biotechnology approaches. His research group is currently working on the molecular plant-microbe interactions using pepper Xanthomonas euvesicatoria and watermelon-Acidovorax citrulli as two model plant-pathogen systems.

Zhao’s group has also worked on the genetic improvement of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), in order to improve biofuel-related traits and resistance to both abiotic and biotic stress. Another on-going project in Zhao’s group is to manipulate Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs) to help improve plant health/production under a controlled-environment.