By Chris R. Gonzalez
When you grow up on a small family farm in Edgecombe County, college is a good time to switch gears. Leaving farm life for North Carolina State University, Katherine Drake chose to major in polymer color chemistry in the College of Textiles. But an undergraduate class with plant breeder Susana Milla-Lewis in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences turned her thoughts back to her roots.
“I realized that ag was really tugging at my heartstrings, and I ended up minoring in crop science,” said Stowe, who received an Outstanding Young Alumni Award from the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences in 2022.
Stowe’s excitement for research and plant breeding grew while working with Milla-Lewis’ husband, Ramsey Lewis, a fellow faculty member in crop sciences, during a summer internship.
“Dr. Milla-Lewis didn’t have any jobs, but her husband had an internship in tobacco breeding which was a great fit because my dad was a tobacco farmer. I ended up doing my master’s and Ph.D. in plant breeding under the direction of Ramsey Lewis in the tobacco breeding program,” Stowe said.
It was while working with Lewis that Stowe realized how research benefits agriculture statewide.
“The breeding research work we were doing was directly impacting North Carolina farmers. I realized ag research was a way to still be involved with farmers like my dad without physically being on the farm,” she said.
Stowe has turned her interest in plant breeding into a career as the first director of the nonprofit U.S. Soybean Research Collaborative (USSRC). She has just completed her first year with the multistate program that strives to combine all elements of soybean research for the betterment of farmers.
The director’s role is to engage soybean farmers with public and private groups and federal and state agencies in ways that will go beyond traditional research.
She previously served as a research coordinator for the N.C. Soybean Producers Association but admits prior to that, she didn’t know a lot about soybeans. And while she does eat edamame (young soybeans), she prefers to consume most of her soybeans in the form of bacon.
Farm animals are by far the biggest consumers of soybeans. About 80% of the crop goes to feed pigs, chickens and turkeys grown in the state.
Aside from being a great source of protein for animals and humans, the legumes have some new and exciting uses.
“Soybeans are really interesting because they are used in so many different ways. Recently Goodyear started using soybeans to create a more sustainable tire. They’ve also been used in Skechers shoes,” Stowe said.
“The largest buzz around soybeans right now is their role in biofuel. The oil provides a lower-carbon intensity fuel which could make it a direct replacement for diesel in a variety of machinery, including aviation fuel,” she said.
Stowe states that there is a growing future for females in the agriculture industry.
“Recently, there are more and more women, and it is cool to be in this up-and-coming wave. I am definitely not the first, and a lot of people have paved the way for my footsteps. For example, the CEO of the United Soybean Board is a female, Polly Ruhland….We also have a number of state execs now who work for various soybean associations across the U.S. that are females and a number of academic researchers working in soy that are female,” Stowe noted.
Her advice for women wanting to pursue a career in agriculture or research is to remember that “you belong here, and you have a valuable perspective to bring.”
“The biggest challenge for women in ag or any science field is how to balance being a mom and having a very demanding career. There are people who say things like, ‘I don’t know if you can do this because you want to have a family’…. I think overcoming how to do both well is a harder challenge than just being a female in ag directly,” she said.
Stowe said it is a great help to connect with other women who have experience doing similar work. “None will say it isn’t hard (having a demanding career and a family), but all will encourage you that you can do hard things and to stick with it,” she said.
USSRC is based in Ankeny, Iowa, so the young director spends about 50% of her time working remotely in Raleigh and the other half traveling to Ankeny and other events and presentations across the U.S..
Aside from running a new soybean collaborative, Stowe also serves as president of the NC State Alumni Association to over 20,000 members. She also makes time to work with NC State’s Caldwell Fellows program and SATELLITE Camp, a STEM high school outreach program led by Caldwell Fellows.
She said that the alumni board runs smoothly thanks to the very competent and hard-working paid staff who take care of the day-to-day work. The board gets to take part in the “fun stuff” and provides some ideas and strategy.
“I bring an interesting perspective to the alumni board because I work for a nonprofit, and now I get to work for 10 different boards,” Stowe said with a laugh. “My day job is on the staff side, so it makes you appreciative of the volunteer board side, too.”
Among her most important work is being a mom to her two young sons.
“My 3-year-old plants his (pretend) soybeans. Both boys are obsessed with tractors, combines, trucks and equipment. If it is plant or farm-related, they’re into it,” she said.
Stowe’s younger brother and sister are also big supporters of farm work and family. All three are NC State grads, and they were at NC State at the same time. “We are all very supportive of each other,” she says. Her husband, Sadler, who is also a CALS graduate, works in the turfgrass industry, selling fertilizer to golf courses. So, agriculture is truly a family affair.
When asked about women who have been great role models in her life, Stowe quickly gave tribute to her grandmothers.
“While there are many amazing women leaders out there, the most impactful women in my life were my two grandmas. Both worked full-time jobs (as a nurse and teacher) while still raising a family, truly a minority of their time. They taught me how to be resilient and showed me women really can do it all — have successful careers and be amazing mothers too — if that is what they want,” she said.
When discussing future plans and career paths, Stowe doesn’t limit herself to the usual or road most traveled.
“I don’t know where I will end up, but I know I will always be supporting ag and farmers… and making sure I’m a champion for folks working hard out there every day to put food on our table,” she said proudly.
This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.