Mark Watson’s Paths Lead to Agriculture

Mark Watson is intrigued by the wide diversity of plants, but that’s not surprising; he’s intrigued by and invested in the diversity of the world in general. This second-year student is majoring in three subjects, with an eye on a fourth.  He’s an advanced young man and continues to advance at his own pace, planning to graduate spring 2020, but don’t expect him to settle into a single well-worn path toward his future. He’s creating new and complex paths here at NC State.

Wearing his father’s vintage NC State shirt in tribute to his alumnus parent, Mark explains that he has already completed enough course work to nearly qualify as a senior. “I have a Spanish Language and Literature major in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, advisor Susan Navey-Davis. My advisor for the Horticultural Science major is Helen Kraus, and Plant and Soil Science advisor is Randy Wells.”

His extended family is from eastern North Carolina, but “My family doesn’t have much of an agriculture background. My dad studied electrical engineering and both my brothers study computer science here, so there’s a lot of technology in my family, and it’s kind of funny that I’m the odd one out, doing agriculture. Sometimes I’ll say to my brother, when he’s pointing out some of the new buildings on Centennial [campus], “The buildings in your field may look the coolest, but my field tastes the best!”

Mark’s upbeat view of the world is built on a foundation of hard work and academic achievement. He’s been recognized  by many scholarship committees, including the North Carolina State Elks Association Most Valuable Student Scholarship, William and Emily Stevens Scholarship (twice), J.M. and Sally B. Beard Agricultural Scholarship (twice) and the Crop and Soil Science Scholarship.

As a young child, his life moved to an international scale when his family moved to Malaysia for business reasons, and Mark continues to view the world from that perspective.

What was it like to be an American child in Malaysia?

It was a really unique time and place: for one, you met an interesting group of people there. We lived on an island called Penang, right off the coast. Lots of different types of people, Chinese and Indian and British and Malay, so it was really a diverse group of people to grow up around. Plus, the school I went to was really interesting. It was an American style school, but it was meant for Christian missionaries in Malaysia. Even though my family wasn’t technically missionaries, we still ended up there, with lots of interesting people there, and it’s affected the way I think a lot now.

How did you get interested in plants?

I have quite a few memories that got me interested in plants, probably my earliest ones have to do with plants. There were a couple of mango trees behind our school. A lot of us would climb the mango trees, and sometimes take unripe fruit home and experiment with them. You can actually use the unripe fruit as a meat tenderizer; because of a certain enzyme in them.

I think of eating the food there, with the people from our church; because the food there is really famous, and I think getting to like food that much got me into agriculture.

Why did you choose NC State?

I knew I wanted to do something with plants or agriculture. Because I like plants a lot, and I was thinking about doing something environmental, but I thought about the way agriculture is so central to just the way people live, and it’s integral to people’s survival and to culture. Agriculture is the intersection of plants and people.

I guess the thing that introduced me to the major itself was the program [for high schoolers] they have at NC State, which I really recommend, the Ag-Discovery Camp. We got to do a really wide variety of things, both in the lab and out in the field. It also got me introduced to campus. We got to see what campus was like. We ate at Clark Hall, which I got to like a lot then, especially the chocolate milk!

What opportunities have you found here?

Last spring and summer, I helped Dr. Hui Fang in his cotton research, sort of cotton genetics–the research itself was to find markers for certain traits, but the main thing I did was watering and taking care of the plants. I worked mainly in the Method Road greenhouses with cotton seedlings, day to day. I also worked with Dr. Vasu Kurapathy. I haven’t done any research this year, but I’m getting back into it this summer.

Some of your interests outside of the classroom?

I’m a member of the Horticulture Club. And I like going running, especially on trails out in the middle of nowhere; this morning I went running around Lake Crabtree. And I’m involved with Providence Baptist Church. They’ve been really supportive of me during my time at State.

What’s it like to be part of NC State Crop and Soil Sciences?

The best thing about Crop and Soil Sciences is the welcomingness of professors. In my experience, they’re quite humble, and yet they really know what they’re talking about, which makes them easy to talk to. Last semester, I had Dr. Patterson: he’s awesome to talk to, and the semester before that I had Dr. Crouse in soil science, he’s awesome as well. They both know what they’re talking about, but they’re also willing to talk to you. And just hear what you have to say.  Also, on that same theme, the welcomingness of the students in my crop science class. A lot of them were willing to talk with me and were interested in where I was coming from, since I wasn’t really from an Ag background. It was really encouraging to have them to come up and talk to me; just talk together on the bus on the way to field trips.

What’s coming up next for you?

The crop I’ve been thinking working with short term is sweet potato, which would be right between horticultural science and plant and soil science. I’m going to be part of the International Research Internship Program in Peru this summer.

The organization’s called CIP International Potato Center in Lima, Peru. Their mission is a lot in common with what I’d like to do. They do really cool research that focuses on research like genetics, breeding, and the pathology of sweet potatoes and potatoes and a lot of root vegetables that are not known in North America, but they’ve been cultivating in the Andes.

They’re looking for ways to breed these sweet potatoes, not just to make them more profitable: their goal is to assist farmers in developing companies, and provide them to sustenance farmers in Western and Eastern Africa and parts of South and Central America, so at least they can survive by preventing malnutrition. I like the international scope of the program, along with the fact that they’re really getting at people’s basic needs: livelihood and a good meal.

– by Kaki Carl