i'm an agronomist

Anna Underhill

1. Where are you from?
Minneapolis, Minnesota

2. What first started your interest in agronomy?
I first became interested in agronomy after reading about Norman Borlaug for a class project in middle school. Learning about Dr. Borlaug, I was immediately interested by his ability to solve humanitarian crises through his wheat breeding. As a career, this was enticing to me: I liked plants, I liked science, and I liked helping people. I think this was the first time I had a strong feeling about what I wanted to pursue as a field of study and as a future job.

3. What are some of the main issues for society that you are concerned about?
Overall, society is facing an issue of sustainability; how will limited resources be allocated and used among a growing population in an environmentally, socially, and economically feasible way? This is especially apparent in agriculture, and I think nearly every problem addressed in the future will revolve around this theme of sustainable use. A lot of focus is placed on “feeding the nine billion”; what does this mean for farmers, for researchers, for agriculture as a whole? It’s more than growing as much Iowan corn as we can, and I believe we need to be more critical of ourselves and more honest in our efforts to feed the world.

4. Do you have any advice for those thinking about continuing their education to address the issues you've mentioned?
I would say that anyone choosing to pursue these issues will find that there’s much to learn: many problems, many solutions, and many different points of view. It’s the responsibility of those in agriculture to be aware of what’s wrong with prevailing practices, and to work in pursuit of a more sustainable future. There’s certainly much work to be done, and no matter what sort of career you’re interested in agronomy, you can work to improve agriculture.

5. Why did you choose Iowa State University?
I chose Iowa State for its leading program and strong financial support. Many agronomy faculty I spoke to at other universities had earned at least one degree at ISU, which certainly speaks to our department’s authority and recognized expertise! I was also very interested in the potential for undergraduate research experience, and made it one of my top priorities in choosing a college. I’ve already worked on multiple projects, and plan on completing my own research in the next years. Also, I was drawn to Iowa State’s high placement rate—99% of graduating seniors in agronomy go on to a full-time job or graduate school.

6. What was your first year here like?
My first year at Iowa State was a huge learning experience. I’m not from a farm, and wasn’t ever exposed to agriculture in school or at home. Right away, the Agronomy Learning Community field trip introduced me to ways agronomy is used in Iowa, and to my new classmates. Courses such as Principles of Agronomy (AGRON 114) and Introduction to Soil Science (AGRON 154) really taught me the basics of production systems, and gave me knowledge that I’ve applied in nearly every other course. Apart from classes, my first year involved meeting tons of new people—including some of my now-best friends!—joining new activities, and having a ton of fun.

7. What has been your favorite class?
So far, one of my favorite classes has been Issues in Sustainable Agriculture (AGRON 450). Taught by Ms. Gretchen Zdorkowski, this class explores the history of American agriculture in the 20th century and the influences of factors that have led to our current agricultural system. I’ve always been concerned about sustainability and responsible stewardship, but this course helped me understand how issues have developed, and what can be done to avoid our past mistakes.

8. What has been your favorite experience in the agronomy program?
My favorite experience has been working as a peer mentor in the Freshman Learning Community. I’ve gotten to meet all the incoming students, and been able to help them in their first semester here. It’s so fun to see them get to know each other, and to see their excitement about agronomy!

9. You have a faculty adviser, how has your experience been with him?
My advisor is Dr. Andrew Manu, and my experiences with him have been great. He’s always available for help, and has worked with me to help plan out everything from a semester class schedule to a four-year plan. I would recommend getting to know your advisor well; having a good relationship will definitely help if you want job references or letters of recommendation.

10. Have you been involved with a research project?
Yes, I’ve been involved in a few research projects at ISU so far. The first of these was in Dr. Patrick Schnable’s plant genetics lab my freshman year. Working with one of his graduate students, I was looking at how differing lignin concentrations in corn affected carbon emissions. This was a project with the Center for Carbon Capturing Crops, and may eventually have implications in using plants to mitigate climate change. Currently, I am working with Dr. Jianming Yu and Dr. Xianran Li in the Molecular Genomics and Plant Breeding lab. I’m responsible for growing and maintaining maize populations that include plants mutant for a certain gene affecting elongation and internode spacing. I will also be continuing work in this lab over the summer.

11. Has the research project benefited your learning experience?
Both of my projects have introduced me to practical aspects of research, and have taught me a lot about what a job in the academic field might look like. They’ve given me an opportunity to see how the publishing process works, what’s required in terms of time and resources, and taught me some basic lab techniques. I would say that research is very beneficial to anyone’s learning experience, and teaches you things you can’t learn in class.

12. Do you see the research work you are doing as a benefit to society?
Yes. Despite the fact that the research I’ve worked on has been purely academic, I see the experience as helping advance the field of plant science—something that’s definitely of benefit to society—and helping train future scientists such as myself. Even projects that seem very specific could perhaps have application in industry, and broaden the knowledge base that will aid future researchers in their projects.

13. Do you participate in any student organizations?
I play for the Iowa State Women’s Ultimate Frisbee club team, and am a member of the ISU College Democrats. I would definitely encourage any student to get involved; it’s a great way to pursue an interest or develop a new one. For instance, I never thought I’d play sports in college and now I travel around the country playing ultimate! It’s also a fantastic way to meet people, especially as a freshman or new student.

14. Any advice for those considering a major in agronomy?
First of all, if you’re considering an agronomy major: do it! Agronomy is an extremely diverse field that can lead to many careers; farming, sales or field agronomy, soil science, and plant breeding are just a few of the things you could do. Coupling an agronomy major with another area is powerful as well—many students pair Horticulture, Ag Business, or Global Resource Systems for a broader experience. It’s very easy to tailor your degree to your area of interest.

15. Ten years from now, what do you want to be doing?
In ten years, I want to be fulfilling the reason I got into agronomy in the first place: doing research and plant breeding to increase sustainability in agriculture. I hope to have completed a Ph.D. program, and be working on a project involving something like native or underutilized crops. I’m not sure where I’d like to end up living, but I want to keep traveling the U.S. and the world.

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