Student Spotlight: Cara Mathers Pursues Ph.D. and Peace

Cara Mathers sticks with NC State for Ph.D

All of the Above

There are many levels of study at NC State, as an associate, undergrad, graduate, doctoral, and beyond.  Cara Mathers chose (almost) all of the above. Her introduction to NC State was as a rising undergraduate senior in the Crop and Soil Sciences summer-long research program BESST (Basic Environmental Soil Science Training).  This National Science Foundation-funded program appealed to Cara as a nexus of her interests in food justice, food security, and environmental science.  “[The BESST Program] was one of the best summers of my life – getting to know other like-minded students and learning what real research felt like,” Cara said.  It left such an impression that she chose to return to NC State as a graduate student. “I had a wonderful experience.  So, when given the opportunity to return to seek a graduate degree under the advisement of Dr. [Joshua]Heitman, the REU program coordinator, I didn’t at all hesitate.”  

Pack For More

It’s important to be surrounded by a good support system.  That’s the reason why I chose NC State.

Cara knew graduate school would be a challenge.  “It’s important to be surrounded by a good support system.  That’s the reason why I chose NC State,” Cara said. Lured back into the Pack, Cara found the opportunity to shape her studies and personal interests.  Her graduate studies focused on soil physics, specifically dry surface layer formation. She studied how the thickness of a soil’s dry surface layer affects the rate of gas diffusion into the atmosphere. Her lab work will likely contribute to modeling systems like the EPA’s Community Multiscale Air Quality (CMAQ) Model, an open-source software predicting the fate of airborne pollutants.  This system helps the EPA, US states, and air quality managers understand the atmospheric processes necessary for managing air quality and protecting public health.  

Connecting Americas

Cara Mathers works with Women for Peace in Colombia
Cara works with Women For Peace in Colombia

Cara extended her connections beyond the lab and US.  During her time at NC State, she’s found meaningful ways to add a personal dimension to her research, through 100,000 Strong in the Americas’ Innovation Grant Program, which fuels university partnerships increasing student exchange and training programs in the Americas.  This non-profit partners US & Colombian college students in the global peace-building process through educational female empowerment programs.  Cara worked with three Colombian undergrads on a proposal to bring economic empowerment to women in the rural Santander region of Colombia.  “Our goal is to establish a coworking space with volunteers and paid teachers to train women on how to run and sustain a business,” Cara said.  To complete the loop, Cara recently traveled with lead professor Dr. Lori Snyder to Bogotá, Colombia to work with project partners on their project grant proposal.  Dr. Snyder emphasized the value of international collegiate programs.  “These relationships go beyond soil science,” Dr. Snyder said.  “We are creating networks for solving bigger issues in these conflict zones.  With Cara’s undergraduate background in peace studies, she was a natural fit.”

Staying Put but Not Still

Mathers seems to have put down some of her own roots.  Instead of moving on for a terminal degree, she has chosen to stay at NC State.  “This fall I’ll begin my Ph.D. studies under the advisement of Dr. Josh Heitman and Dr. Alex Woodley.  I’m transitioning my research focus from soil physics to soil management – but I won’t entirely forget my soil physics roots!” she said.  She is currently immersed in professional research to direct her studies. “I’m thinking about investigating different management systems – how they affect soil water holding capacity or yield stability in crops like corn and soybeans,”  Cara said. She predicts a three-year investigation depending on where her studies lead. Dr. Heitman is proud of her progress,  “Cara has been a leader in our graduate program since she arrived on campus. I’m excited to see her continue for her Ph.D. in sustainable soil management. Her hard work, dedication, and leadership are an asset to agriculture in NC and beyond.”    

Life Lessons

Cara Mathers soil column research
“Real science is messy”

Last week Cara successfully defended her master’s thesis.  She paused to reflect on what she’s already learned along the way.  “Real science is messy. Probes will fail. Wires will accidentally disconnect from data loggers.  Leaks will sprout from columns,” she said. Experience is a ruthless teacher. The biggest takeaways overshadow academics.  “The most important lesson I learned was to be able to manage disappointment when things didn’t turn out how I expected and to still make something meaningful of data I did collect,” Cara noted. 

Global Ambition

Cara ultimately hopes to bridge her work in soil sciences with global food security.  “Because of my Catholic faith and time spent volunteering, I’ve fostered an interest in peace and justice, and food security is intimately tied to both of these concepts.  This could potentially lead me to work for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, or as a Food for Peace Officer with USAID…or as a project manager for agricultural development with Catholic Relief Services.  I’m still in the process of figuring out the exact route I’ll take, but I know that I want to work in this realm,” she said.  

Interested in More?

Do you know a college student interested in graduate crop and soil science studies?  Visit to learn about all of our graduate opportunities.