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UAPB grad’s students get real-world tasks

by Will Hehemann Special to The Commercial | May 17, 2023 at 3:40 a.m.
Ignacio Lopez, an alumnus of the graduate program in aquaculture and fisheries at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, is an aquaculture instructor for Moss Point Career and Tech Ed Center at Moss Point, Miss. (Special to The Commercial/University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff)

In his career, Ignacio Lopez strives to show high school students their self-worth and instill them with skills that will be valuable in their future careers.

A 2016 alumnus of the graduate program in aquaculture and fisheries at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, he is an aquaculture instructor for Moss Point Career and Tech Ed Center, a public high school in Moss Point, Miss.

Lopez is responsible for introducing students to the field of aquaculture and fisheries and showing them how to construct and maintain aquafarms.

"All students want to learn -- and for the right reasons, and with the right motivation, they will lay down their phones and get to work," he said. "Students have diverse interests, and I must ensure that they all have projects that pique their individual interests. Hence, students that like building and construction are tasked with building systems and facility improvements or modifications."

Lopez aims to ensure every student can perform meaningful hands-on work in his classroom. His main objective is that the students realize their time is valuable and to make sure they leave with a variety of skills and self-confidence that will aid them in the future, whether in aquaculture or another field.

He said some of his students recently constructed a "chop and flip" aquaponics system that will be installed at a local elementary school. Others are working on a water distribution system that automatically maintains water levels in the school's different recirculating aquaculture systems. Another group of students is responsible for updating the school's do-it-yourself greenhouse.

"Students that enjoy animal husbandry are the ones that perform tasks related to caring for animals," he said. "Others enjoy mechanics and are tasked with fixing weed eaters, lawnmowers or pressure washers that I find on the side of the road. Some enjoy computer-aided design (CAD) and engineering -- I assign them tasks such as creating 3D models of our systems that aid in teaching subsequent cohorts. Artistic students are tasked with creating visual aids and paintings."


In addition to helping increase awareness of aquaculture among high school students in Moss Point, Lopez also helped facilitate a special one-day high school visit to the U.S. Aquaculture Society's recent Aquaculture America meeting. For the second year in a row, UAPB participated in the diversity, equity and inclusion session to help ensure inclusivity in the field and in the U.S. Aquaculture Society.

During the conference, groups of high school students from Louisiana and Mississippi had the chance to interact with aquaculture professionals and learn about career opportunities in the field. According to Rebecca Lochmann, PhD., chair of the department at UAPB (currently on sabbatical), this is an important step by the U.S. Aquaculture Society in exposing young minority students to aquaculture.

In working with youth, Lopez said he believes there is a capable individual inside everyone, regardless of sex or demographic.

"It is my goal that every young adult that I am privileged to influence leaves my tutelage as a contributing member of society," he said. "When I am faced with complaints or lack of motivation, my response to my students is 'human up' or 'figure it out.'"


Lopez spent his childhood in his hometown of Madrid, Spain, before moving to the U.S. in 2004. His love for the natural world was evident even when he was a child.

"My mother and aunt were ungulate veterinarians," he said. "They instilled in me a passion for all life forms. My first word was 'col' a shortened form of 'caracol,' which means 'snail.' They claim that as a fresh tot, I would collect snails from my grandparents' garden and put them in a bucket. This evolved into a fascination for all bugs and creepy crawlies."

Lopez said his grandfather, a psychiatrist, diagnosed him as having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at a young age.

"My grandfather suggested my parents either put me on a medication or get me into fishing to tame my hyperactivity and teach me patience," Lopez said. "My parents, who are not fishers by any means, opted for the latter and took me fishing to an area of the Santander Bay, which was teaming with mullet. From the first fish I caught, I was hooked on fishing."

Much to his parents' dismay, the young Lopez became hyper-focused on fish.

"In the end, they claimed my obsession with fish was a better choice than an obsession for land animals as I was less likely to get stung by a scorpion or bitten by a viper," he said. "Everything that followed, from my education to my career path, was self-driven. The inclination towards recirculating aquaculture and systems design/construction could likely be attributed to my father who is an electrical engineer and taught me to be analytical and put processes together to achieve end goals."

When pondering which career path to pursue, Lopez originally wanted to work in aquaculture to help repopulate native brown trout in Spanish rivers.

"As a young and avid fly-fisherman, I read fishing books published in the 1970s and 1980s that depicted massive and plentiful browns in many of the Iberian watersheds," he said. "When putting theory into practice, I never experienced anything remotely close. Hence, I thought if I could artificially assist in the reproduction side of things, maybe the populations could bounce back."

Later, once Lopez moved to U.S. in his early teens, his interest in aquaculture evolved into a desire to grow sturgeon for caviar and become extremely wealthy.

"Regrettably, neither of my original aspirations have materialized," he said. "I began teaching because the pay is much better than in the field of fisheries and aquaculture because of the problem of foreign aquaculture imports. In my current position, I enjoy plenty of time off to take my family to the motherland and do all sort of projects. I also have creative freedom to build and grow whatever I want."

Lopez earned his undergraduate degree in fish, wildlife and conservation biology from Colorado State University in 2011 and his graduate degree from UAPB in 2016. He considers his time at UAPB to be the most formative and fun experience of his early adulthood.

"I was always a 'bio guy,' with a certain inclination to mechanical and engineering activities, but at UAPB I was able to fully hybridize," he said. "Working under Dr. Madan Dey (former professor of aquaculture/seafood economics and marketing), I was able to really gain a deep understanding of how economics plays a role in aquaculture, and indeed, society as a whole. Thanks to that bombshell of a course, I developed my math and statistical skills to a point I did not think possible."

Lopez said he was also influenced by Trace Peterson, former professor of fish health, whose course on fish health sticks with him to this day.

"I regret not having a nutrition or genetics course under my belt, but overall, I learned a great deal of subjects in great depth, all in the context of fish, aquaculture and aquatic ecology, and surrounded by fellow fish nerds. Who could ask for more?"

Will Hehemann is a writer/editor at the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.

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