BY Vicky Brito
and Cheryl Taylor
HARLINGEN — The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s award-winning Mariachi Aztlán greeted a large contingent of Texas legislators, including senators, representatives and staff members, when they arrived in Harlingen on Thursday.
After a greeting by Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell, the group set off on their four-day tour of key sites in Cameron and Willacy counties, with their first stop being United Launch Alliance at Harlingen International Airport.
This is the 21st Legislative Tour of the Rio Grande Valley, held Jan. 26-29 and organized by RGV Partnership, with a number of sponsors, including UTRGV.
Lawmakers get a first-hand look at education, infrastructure, transportation, healthcare, manufacturing, agriculture and international relations.
Accompanying the out-of-town lawmakers on their first-hand look at education, infrastructure, transportation, healthcare, manufacturing, agriculture and international relations were Rep. Eddie Lucio III and Rep. René Oliveira.
“The purpose of this tour is to engage our local communities and supporters in a direct conversation with our policymakers,” said Sergio Contreras, president and executive director for the RGV Partnership. “I am heartened to see this group being so attentive and inquisitive, and I am grateful to all our sponsors for helping to make this a productive experience for everyone.”
Friday’s activities continued with a visit to UTRGV’s Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen for a medical discussion panel. Representatives from Valley Baptist Medical Center, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance and the UTRGV School of Medicine served as panelists.
On Friday morning, the delegation was greeted at the UTRGV Brownsville Campus by Veronica Gonzales, vice president for Governmental and Community Relations, as they stepped of their busses in front of the Dr. Luis V. Colom Center for Biomedical Studies.
In the Colom Center, the group was treated to a tour of several UTRGV South Texas Diabetes and Obesity Institute (STDOI) laboratories, enabling the group to see different aspects of the vast research being conducted at UTRGV by scientists from around the world.
Dr. Matthew Johnson, associate professor of STDOI Research, talked about working with large family units to create gene pools for analysis. He said that in South Texas, diabetes is widespread at about 30 percent, and that does not include those who are diabetic and unaware, nor those who are pre-diabetic.
At another laboratory, the group was engaged by Dr. John Blangero, professor of STDOI Research, who discussed engineering stem cells. Although unable to take the tour into the computer room, Blangero shared photos of the super computer that provides rapid research results.
Dr. Joanne Curran, professor of STDOI Research, welcomed visitors to her laboratory, where she talked about the work taking place with DNA. She explained that STDOI works in collaboration with 75 institutions worldwide.
A quick relocation took lawmakers to the Science and Engineering Technology Building, where they first heard from Dr. John Breier, associate professor in the School of Earth, Environmental and Marine Science.
Breier said UTRGV is one of the partners in the Center for Coastal and Marine Ecosystems, a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and showed photos of new Coastal Studies labs at Port Isabel. He also discussed the shortfall of graduates in the geosciences, and the need for Texas to produce more students to fill jobs in these professions.
The next presentation, by Dr. Fredrick Jenet, associate professor of physics, took the legislative group from the oceans to the stars. Jenet gave the group an overview of the Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy and STARGATE, and their role in partnering with SpaceX, known worldwide for its design, manufacture and ability to launch advanced rockets and spacecraft.
Jenet introduced Alma Walzer, SpaceX’s government and business affairs representative, who brought the legislators up to speed on development of the SpaceX launch site at Boca Chica Beach.
“When you come back in two years, I hope you will be able to watch at launch out at the spaceport,” Walzer said.
After a busy morning, the group boarded their buses to enjoy lunch at an IDEA Public School campus, with the next stop scheduled at the Port of Brownsville.
Saturday, the group will go to Raymondville for an informational day on recreation and tourism in Willacy County. The group returns to Austin today.