Nicholas Wege Dias has an insider’s view of prison life. A graduate research assistant in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Dias has conducted much of his master’s research at rural correctional centers.

Virginia Department of Corrections prison farms, located throughout the commonwealth, house approximately 2,000 beef cattle. Faculty and students in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences provide medical care and conduct research to help maintain the animals’ health and improve efficiency and productivity.

Dias and advisor Vitor Mercadante, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences, focus on the improvement of reproductive bio-technologies, such as estrus synchronization protocols and artificial insemination. When working at the prison farms, the researchers are aided by minor offenders who are approaching release.

An AI – artificial insemination – expert, Dias wanted to give back to many of the inmates and prison farm employees who have assisted him with his research. This semester, he did so by delivering a two-day AI course to 12 prisoners and four prison farm managers in Southampton County at the Deerfield Correctional Center. Prisoners from the Greensville Correctional Center also traveled to the site to participate in Dias’ program. 

“In this country, inmates have the opportunity to work at the farms, which can shorten their internment and teach them new skills,” said Dias, who is from São Paulo, Brazil. “Since background checks still present a problem for former inmates, trainings offering specialized skills, such as AI, can help them find employment in the agricultural sector following their release.”

Dias, who is finalizing his degree and beginning work on his doctorate in beef cattle reproduction, had the freedom to choose the type of program he would like to conduct and where he would deliver the training. One of four current scholars in the university’s Graduate Extension Scholars program, funded by Virginia Cooperative Extension, he was challenged to formulate and deliver an educational program designed to meet a need in the commonwealth. Dias chose to focus on fostering work skills.

Nicholas Wege Dias

Nicholas Wege Dias
Nicholas Wege Dias

Although AI requires significant training, the graduate student wanted to “show inmates that there is a door you can open to become an AI technician. If they have had contact with this and know the technique, they are a step ahead of many others,” he said.

“The idea behind the Graduate Extension Scholars program is that in graduate training we get good at research and sometimes have opportunities to teach, but instruction about working with Extension and disseminating research results is often missing,” said Hannah Scherer, an assistant professor and Extension specialist with the college’s Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education.

In the first year of the program, graduate students partner with a high school agriculture teacher and an Extension professional. They collaborate in order to identify a need that the graduate students can address with their expertise and to develop an evidence-based educational program.

Last semester, Dias partnered with educator Sarah Scyphers to teach a total of five classes on bovine reproduction practices to students at Holsten High School in Damascus, Virginia. He was able to use content from this course to develop his inmate program, which served as his project for the second year of the program. In addition, he drew material from an AI training manual produced by Select Sires, a genetics company that provides reproductive services to correctional centers in the commonwealth.  

“The first afternoon of the training was dedicated to theoretical concepts,” said Dias. “The inmates were then able to practice using a mannequin and reproductive tracts from slaughtered animals. On the second day, the inmates and farm managers were able to perform the technique on the animals.”

While some of the participants were not able to master the technique, others excelled. Dias is buoyed by the participants’ positive feedback. Most impressively, more than half indicated a desire to pursue a career in the field of AI. The assessments will guide Dias in developing future classes.  

“Although there were many challenges, including transportation issues, the prisoners’ regimented schedules, and regulations about needles, scissors, and other equipment, this was one of the most fulfilling experiences I have had,” Dias said. “I am really happy that I could make this Extension project a social project as well. The prisoners don’t often have the opportunity to take courses like this.”

Dias’ future plans in academia include research, though not as the primary focus of his appointment. He plans to integrate teaching and Extension and hopes to deliver another course to inmates that could help position them for successful careers in the agricultural sector.

—  Written by Amy Painter