The University of Arizona

CEASA Member Interviews by Michaela Brumbaugh

Philipp von Bieberstein




Philipp von Bieberstein grew up in Rosenheim, Germany. When he was in high school, his dad’s job took the family to the United States. During his sophomore year he started growing herbs and tomato plants. The fact that he has received homeopathic treatments for his entire life motivated his interest in growing plants for medicinal uses.


That interest has spread to all plants now that Philipp is studying plant sciences at the University of Arizona. He knows the most about growing tomatoes, thanks to Dr. Rorabaugh’s basic hydroponics class. Philipp enjoys learning how plants work on a molecular and biological level.


Besides participating in CEASA, Philipp belongs to the UA Surf Club and works at the Campus Recreation Center. He’s also a sports club monitor. He opens the fields for sports teams and supervises the players to ensure they follow the rules.


Philipp is a fan of vegetables of all sorts, including the tomato, avocado, and carrot. His hobbies are just as diverse as his food interests—growing plants, surfing, and jogging in the summer, skiing in the winter, and learning new things about different topics. While he gardens, he has some music favorites: indie and reggae. His dream job involves growing medicinal plants and processing them into extracts and creams to heal people.


Tara O’Heir




Tara O’Heir moved around a lot when she was growing up, but she calls her hometown Sedona, Arizona, where she attended elementary school and high school. Her major at the University of Arizona is plant sciences, with a focus on controlled environment agriculture.


Tara fell into this field of study by accident. She still hadn’t declared a major by her sophomore year, when she discovered Dr. Patricia Rorabaugh’s class on hydroponics basics. Tara fell in love with plant sciences and declared her major two weeks later. “I’ve blossomed where I’ve been planted,” she said.


Besides participating in CEASA as the 2013 president, Tara was part of Camp Wildcat for a while, but she found it hard to dedicate an entire weekend to the activities. She also belongs to the Entomology and Arthropod Club.


Tara’s plant knowledge is diverse. She has raised more than 200 different plant species. Most of her experience comes from a seven-month internship with the plant science department, Living with the Land, at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. She still has a tissue-cultured dragon fruit that she made at Disney.


Her favorite vegetable to eat comes in the form of kale chips. Tara also cooks a lot of squash, which technically is a fruit, even using butternut squash for spaghetti sauce. Hobbies that are not related to plants include sunbathing on the beach, riding in hot-air balloons, traveling, and caring for cats. She listens to a variety of music while gardening, including Lana Del Rey and Jukebox the Ghost.


Amber Pantel




Amber Pantel grew up on Sesame Street, literally. This Sesame Street, however, was in the town of Gilbert, Arizona. Amber was active in Future Farmers of America during all four years at Highland High School. She competed in many contests, including nursery landscape, food science, agronomy, and parliamentary procedure. She raised sheep for three years and served as chapter treasurer during her senior year. Amber also taught agriculture-related lessons to special education students. One of her big projects was setting up a small hydroponics system in their classroom so they could grow strawberry plants.


If Amber could relive one moment of her life, it would be the chapter FFA banquet during her senior year of high school. She and her best friends were all officers, so they planned the entire event. She watched everything she had done throughout four years of FFA come together, culminating in recognition for all she had accomplished.


Amber’s major at the University of Arizona is sustainable plant systems. She’s active in in CEASA, serving as the 2013 treasurer. She is the 2013 treasurer of Sigma Alpha, the sorority for motivated, ambitious young women dedicated to excelling in agriculture.


Amber’s knowledge of hydroponics stems from her experience growing tomato plants in her high school greenhouse. These days, she tends to the pH levels of water and nutrients and the overall well-being of tomatoes and squash in the teaching greenhouse that Dr. Patricia Rorabaugh runs at the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.


Given her interest in hydroponic tomatoes, it’s no wonder that Amber’s favorite vegetable is, in fact, tomatoes. When she gardens, she puts her iPod on shuffle, so the variety can be anything from Luke Bryan to Backstreet Boys to 3OH!3. Amber’s dream job would be to open a greenhouse operation growing tomatoes or other veggies/fruits or teaching middle school and high school kids about controlled environment agriculture or agriculture in general.


In her spare time, Amber volunteers with her Sigma Alpha sisters, tends her plants, and takes care of her little brothers in Gilbert. She also teaches children through her job with Mad Science, a program that “transforms laboratory science into fun, interactive learning experiences for kids.”


An unusual item in Amber’s apartment is a full-size light saber that lights up and makes noise when you move it. Three words that describe her include witty, sarcastic, and patient.


Daniel Stein




Dan Stein has moved quite a few times, but he calls New York City his hometown because he lived there the longest. He is majoring in agricultural and biosystems engineering at the University of Arizona, while pursuing minors in plant science and mechanical engineering. He already has a BFA in photography from New York University. In fact, he uses his degree to run his business, Dan Stein Photography, while pursuing a second degree and two minors. His house doubles as a photo studio.


Dan’s years of running a photography business honed his leadership skills. His technical expertise extends beyond photography to computers and an ability to connect biology and engineering applications. With his keen memory and voracious appetite for reading, Dan is the most knowledgeable about building systems and recovering plants based on their symptom deficiencies.


His favorite vegetable to eat comes from Dr. Patricia Rorabaugh’s teaching greenhouse—giant cucumbers. Dan has many hobbies: trail running, rock climbing, cycling, backpacking, camping, computer hardware and software, motorcycles, and movies. He doesn’t garden much, preferring the solace of house plants while listening to Geographer, Black Moth Super Rainbow, or a tune from Gardens & Villa.


Dan’s dream job would be working for a cutting-edge company doing advanced computing and hands-on research about interesting environments, such as rain forests, alpine meadows, and glacial lakes.


Matt Denten


Matt Denten grew up in Libertyville, Illinois. He earned his first bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa in interdepartmental studies, with an emphasis in business and workplace practices, especially on the environment. He started growing plants during his senior year. He had done a lot of reading and research about agriculture, and he became obsessed with climate change and Big Ag practices. He learned about the hypoxia zones that were forming in the Gulf of Mexico because of excessive fertilizer runoff.

This is when he discovered hydroponics. “My first ever garden was a hydroponic NFT system in my 100-square-foot bedroom,” Matt said. It sat on his dresser, and the plants quickly took over his bedroom. He grew the typical culinary herbs, such as basil, cilantro, thyme, and rosemary.

After graduating from the University of Iowa, Matt worked at the LEGO Store in downtown Chicago for a few months before taking science courses at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He then transferred to the University of Arizona.

In Tucson, Matt enjoyed growing chili peppers with free seeds from a program called Native Seeds/SEARCH. A few months after Matt built a hydroponic system, he traveled to India to take a course called Sustaining Mountain Ecosystems. This is where he realized the importance of sustainable agriculture. Within six months, he had developed a plan to earn a B.S. in plant sciences, with a focus on controlled environment agriculture.

Back at the University of Arizona, Matt became a CEASA officer. His favorite part of CEASA was having access to a greenhouse. “Access to working with many different hydroponic systems was a real treat,” he said. “You can read about and watch videos about many different hydroponic systems, but nothing beats actually building one or maintaining one. Having access to professors at the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center was awesome. Any question at all could be answered simply by walking into the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center and asking any one of the many professors there.”

After graduating from the University of Arizona, Matt returned to Illinois—to roofs with snow-load weight capacity that offer lots of space for growing plants. He maintains a WordPress blog <>, a Tumblr blog <>, and a Twitter feed <@UrbanFarmGarden> about urban agriculture and hydroponics. His posts include articles he has written, videos and instructions he has created, and articles from the media.

Today, Matt is interested in crop production, agronomy, hydroponics, and especially the potential of aquaponics, which merges aquaculture and hydroponics. Aquaponics uses fish waste as the phosphorous fertilizer, which is sustainable. Although he thinks hydroponics is still very cool, he’s concerned that most of the fertilizers must be mined from the Earth in unsustainable ways.




Brendan Washington


Brendan Washington grew up in Fountain Hills, Arizona. An alumnus of the University of Arizona, he majored in agriculture economics and business management. He also majored in environmental science and minored in both Spanish and African American studies.


He planted his first garden in 2010, shortly after he discovered his passion for sustainable urban agriculture and how he can help save the world. Besides participating in CEASA, Brendan also belonged to the Air Force ROTC, Boy Scouts of America, Elevation Ski & Board Club, and Ramblers (hiking club).


Brendan still lives in Tucson and is active in CEASA. He works at Sea of Green, a hydroponics store on Fourth Avenue. He and his faithful canine companion, Diomedes Washington, attend work days and farmers markets where CEASA sells produce. Brendan is a great resource, especially with his background in business and innovation. His strengths in the agriculture community include the integration of progressive and sustainable production techniques into the urban ecosystem. Since sustainability in urban agriculture is one of the main aims of CEASA, his input is invaluable.


Brendan’s favorite vegetable to eat is Brussels sprouts. His hobbies are diverse—home beer brewing, traveling, camping, fishing, photography, snowboarding, gardening, and home improvement. While he gardens, he listens to a variety of music. Depending on his mood and the task, Brendan switches between reggae (like Rebelution) and his snowboard playlist, which consists of faster rock music (like Rise Against the Machine and The Offspring).


His dream job would be CEO of a Fortune 500 company that specializes in sustainable urban agriculture. An example would be owning a successful sustainable vertical farm in a city center that provides fresh fish and produce to local restaurants and urban dwellers.



Brendan describes himself as ambitious, idealistic, and adaptable to adversity. Something that few people know about him is that he sometimes finds himself afraid to pursue his dreams.

Jacob Hodeaux



Jacob Hodeaux is pursuing a degree in agricultural and biosystems engineering with a minor in plant sciences at the University of Arizona. Born and raised in Tucson, he grew plants with his mom and grandma in their garden. He was planning to study pre-med or biomedical engineering, but the year before he started college, he interned on an organic farm. That experience changed his mind. He really liked working with plants and learning about sustainability, so he decided to major in agricultural and biosystems engineering.


Jacob is the plant productions manager in CEASA. He makes sure the plants aren’t dying, diseased, or bug infested. He also checks out any electrical problems in the greenhouse. His strengths in plant sciences include building and maintaining different systems. With his engineering background, he contributes logic and planning to the club. Besides participating in CEASA, Jacob is a member of the fraternity Beta Theta Pi.


Jacob eats lots of veggies. He especially enjoys making kale chips and cooking with bell peppers. According to Jacob, “Beets are also really tasty when they’re fresh.” He also likes building things, including a motorcycle that he’s fixing up. His dream career would be to breed plants and isolate better varieties for greenhouse conditions.


An unusual thing in Jacob’s home is a bunch of peacock feathers he has from when one of his old neighbors bought a few peacocks and let them loose in the yard. If he could relive any moment, it would be when he and his dad swam out into the ocean off Mexico during a storm in an attempt to save a crab trap that was being dragged out to sea. “[It] was a crazy moment but a fun one to think back on,” he said.


Jacob describes himself as creative, perfectionist, and passionate. To leave you with a bit of mystery, not many people know that he has a tattoo.

Avidor Kazen


Avidor Kazen has lived in Tucson all his life, but he has also spent time traveling. His most recent trip took him to Thailand, where he presented a poster at an agricultural engineering conference.


It comes as no surprise that Avi is majoring in agricultural and biosystems engineering (ABE) at the University of Arizona. This is a field he’s passionate about. He spends a lot of time at the Campus Agricultural Center checking on his projects. The latest involves compiling data on the temperature of used cooking oil in a solar heater for use in biodiesel production.


Avi is one of several ABE students who enjoy using their knowledge to help CEASA build systems to grow plants in. “I’m familiar with irrigation design and automation and controls, along with a basic understanding of what plants need to grow,” he said. “I can, and have, developed indoor hydroponic and aquaponic grow systems. I enjoy coming up with creative designs for grow systems out of repurposed items that are both functional and look cool. I am very resourceful.”


This resourcefulness shows up in many aspects of Avi’s life. He turned an old car battery into a solar generator that gathers energy from the sun and can be accessed at night. He has used this generator on camping trips to play music around an evening campfire and to power light strands. His love for innovation plays out in his dream job–—designing alternative energy harvesting systems around the world or designing clever furniture. In fact, an unusual adornment in his house is a tropical snake environment that used to be a rear projection television.


Besides participating in CEASA, Avi is the 2013 president of Engineers Without Borders. This student club focuses on sustainable development and engineering both locally and abroad. Currently the club is working to implement a sanitation project in Bolivia.


Avi describes himself as “colorful.” His car is decorated in a street artist’s tag. His favorite vegetables to eat are jalapeños and onions. His hobbies include hiking, camping, biking, drawing, painting, music, welding, hydroponics, and home improvement projects. He listens to folk music while he gardens and a wide variety of music at other times. If he could relive any moment, it would be “tomorrow.”

Michaela Brumbaugh



Michaela Brumbaugh hails from Tucson. She is majoring in plant sciences at the University of Arizona. An avid outdoors lover, she trifled with many degree paths in high school before deciding on plant sciences. Although her high school didn’t have an FFA chapter, she still showed an interest in plants. A plant biology course during her senior year gave her access to growing plants in the rooftop greenhouse and defined, in her mind at least, that a career in plants was only natural.


Besides participating in CEASA, Michaela is a member of Sigma Alpha, the professional agriculture sorority. She is the 2013 historian. She also belongs to the Golden Key Honour Society and is active in the Honors College. She participated in the First Year Project her freshman year to help bridge the gap between the public and plants.


Michaela is still learning about a lot of things in plant sciences. She has the basics of soil planting down. She has also spent a bit of time learning about different plants in the Sonoran Desert and Rocky Mountains that can be used medicinally. Herbal uses of plants via ethnobotany is her strength.


Her favorite vegetable to eat is the carrot, a fantastic healthy snack on the go. In her spare time Michaela enjoys photography, hiking, identifying plants, playing the piano, American Sign Language, backpacking, learning about the environment, yoga, kayaking, sailing, camping, gardening (hydroponics/aeroponics/aquaponics/soil), crafting/scrapbooking, reading, and exploring. She loves listening to music, although she doesn’t typically have access to music in the greenhouse. If she does, it’s whatever is on the radio. At home she listens to diverse music in her hoop garden—anything from Carole King to The Velvet Underground.


In the future Michaela dreams of owning a homeopathic herbal medicine store full of remedies she has grown and concocted herself. An unusual thing in her house is a dead seahorse she found while beachcombing in Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, Mexico, during her childhood. If Michaela could relive any moment, it would be climbing on top of Scapegoat Escarpment in the Scapegoat Wilderness of Montana. “It will always be an unforgettable moment for me, one that warms my soul and brings tears to my eyes—a bird’s-eye view of pure, unadulterated Earth at its finest.”


The three words that best describe her are easily distracted rambler. A little-known fact about Michaela is her love of simplicity in life.


Diana Vercillo



Diana was born in Tucson, Arizona, and, as she puts it, she’s “still going strong” here. She is majoring in plant sciences at the University of Arizona, with a focus in horticulture and crop production. Before attending the University of Arizona, Diana earned her associate degree from Pima Community College.


Diana wants to gain as much hands-on experience as possible in her field. “There’s a lot to be learned,” she said. She has helped revive the UA horticulture club and also gardens at home. In addition to working several jobs, she’s a member of CEASA and is involved with landscaping and propagation at the University of Arizona Campus Arboretum. Diana has also been a research assistant in vegetable production with the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.


Her favorite vegetable to eat is asparagus. She wishes the climate were colder so we could grow asparagus in Tucson. Diana also has created a mini-plant factory in her living room, where she grows vegetables seedlings on a shelving unit illuminated with fluorescent lights.