Graduate Students Maintain Momentum Through Research

Combine in soybean field

“I’ve learned that field research takes good communication, organization and flexibility to ensure everything happens on time. The plants don’t wait for you,” said Danielle Cooney, a second-year Crop and Soil Sciences graduate student. Time has been a tale of two dimensions in 2020: hurry up and wait. But many graduate students in NC State Extension programs are maintaining their academic momentum through field projects as part of NC State’s research restart.

Dreading Research Delay

NC State graduate student classes continue to be offered in-person and on-campus this fall,  while undergraduate classes moved online.  But pressing research timelines and fear of the unknown haunted graduate students caught midstream in their research inquiries. “I underestimated how long-lasting the implications [of the pandemic] would be. I was extremely worried that field season wouldn’t happen at all,” Cooney said. “That would have been devastating to my project.”

hands pull soybean plant out of soil

University Research Rebounds

Through a careful process of project scrutiny and exemptions, research work slowly returned to the university over the summer. “Throughout the university’s research restart, we’ve safely activated over 2,000 projects with zero COVID cases in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences,” Steve Lommel, NC State Associate Dean for Research CALS. 

The investigations our students conduct produce tangible results for NC growers and for the students themselves. It’s win-win.

Graduate research is not simply a degree requirement, it’s a mutually beneficial endeavor that trains students and advances knowledge. “Graduate student research is critical to an Extension Specialist’s ability to provide high-quality information to our growers through larger, intensively managed projects,” NC State assistant professor Rachel Vann said.

“Applied research from our graduate students is an essential component to NC Extension programs. The investigations our students conduct produce tangible results for NC growers and for the students themselves. It’s win-win,” said Rich Bonanno Director of NC Extension. 

Students who were able to continue fieldwork this year are appreciative. “This [field research] work has given me opportunities to grow both personally and professionally. I have been able to improve my presentation skills through field days, meetings, and videos. Additionally, I have developed friendships with people from all over the state and made connections in the field of agriculture that will be very beneficial in the future,” graduate student Tristan Morris said. “I’m still on track to graduate in May 2021.”

A combine offloads soybeans into a truck

Growing on Record 

Thanks to funding from the NC Soybean Producers Association, several Crop and Soil Sciences graduate students captured their valued research on video. (Scroll to ‘Graduate Student Projects’ to view them all). “These videos are great examples of how passionate our students are to ensure their work being used in the real world by farmers to improve their operations,” Vann said. 

Extension Specialists publicly present their research regularly in virtual formats for 2020. But one of their roles is to ensure that graduate students have opportunities to present their own research at summer field days. “It’s an important experience for students coming onto the job market to present their work at large events like the Blacklands Tour. Because we weren’t able to hold large gatherings this year, it was even more important that our students have an opportunity to talk about their research and share their message,” Vann said.

Woman kneeling in a field of soybeans

“This year our Extension Specialists had the added challenge of presenting field research virtually. Our Extension programs produced over 2,000 minutes of recorded grower training, including work from our graduate students. It was an immense challenge to safely conduct this year’s field trials with social distancing measures, but our Extension teams did it with flying colors,” Bonanno said.

Field research is meaningful to students beyond the quantitative results. “Every opportunity I have to actively provide insight to our North Carolina growers on the work we are doing and what questions we are investigating is a high priority for me. Growing up on a family farm, I understand the value university field research can have for on-farm decisions,” Cooney said.

woman riding on tractor implement

Want Results Rooted in Research?

If you are a student interested in agriculture or environmental science, investigate our undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Then join us for a guided email tour of our department and university.  Enhancing student experiences through real-world research is just part of how we are growing the future.