Student Spotlight: Greta Rockstad

A female student stands in a greenhouse

Connecting students to careers that solve growing challenges is our mission at NC State’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. We are home to over 250 graduate and undergraduate students, all of whom follow different routes, but their interest in agricultural and environmental impact is the same.

Our students are daily on the move between classes, homework, and hands-on research and fieldwork. We caught up with Greta Rockstad, a turfgrass crop science graduate student, to learn about her research and future plans.

Hi Greta, where are you from?

Ada, Minnesota.

What led you to NC State and CSSC?

Finding ways to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture through plant breeding has been an interest of mine since early in my undergraduate career as a plant science major. I also knew that NC State had a strong plant breeding group where this type of work was happening. 

But I have to say that the deciding factor was the fit I had with my potential advisors, Dr. Susana Milla-Lewis and Dr. Jeff Dunne, when I visited campus. I had no prior experience working with turfgrass but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with such great mentors.

What has been your favorite class so far?

Dr. Jeff Dunne’s special topics class, Programming and Data Science for Applied Research, was a wonderfully useful class and something that I’d never been formally taught up to that point. He covered the basics of coding, data cleaning, analysis methods, and data visualization. It was fascinating and empowered us with the tools to continue exploring and using what we learned beyond the scope of the class for our own research. It was one of the most applicable classes that I’ve taken.

What are you currently researching?

A female student works in a turfgrass greenhouseNC State’s turfgrass breeding lab is known for research on drought-tolerant warm-season turfgrasses. My research builds on our lab’s efforts to find genomic regions that contribute to drought tolerance in St. Augustinegrass. Along with this, I’m evaluating a few high-throughput phenotyping technologies such as drones and time-lapse cameras that can be used to assess drought stress. 

What impact do you think your research will have?

My genomic research is helping to lay the groundwork to make our turfgrass breeding program more efficient. The results I produce will be used to develop what’s called marker-assisted selection, which is a process where young grass seedlings can be molecularly analyzed to see whether they contain certain genomic regions that contribute to a desirable trait. 

This way, we can accelerate the pace of our breeding program by only evaluating plants with a higher potential to be strong-performers – instead of spending years evaluating them in the field only to find their performance is dismal. 

What hands-on experience have you had?

Fortunately, most of my degree has been hands-on! From making crosses in the greenhouse to planting my population in the field, to flying the drone over to collect data, to extracting DNA in the lab for sequencing to presenting some preliminary results at the ASA-CSSA-SSSA conference, there has been no shortage of opportunities. These experiences have been a great complement as well as a chance to put into practice some of the theory that my coursework has emphasized. 

Have student groups been important in your journey?

I’m excited about some of the outreach opportunities the plant breeding club is getting off the ground including a student-run and community-involved plant breeding project working to develop new okra varieties and a special NC State popcorn. 

Many of our current plant breeding students, myself included, had no idea plant breeding was a field let alone a career choice until they got to college, and I’m hoping this project will change that for the local community while also providing them with tasty okra varieties a couple of years down the road. 

Tell us about a favorite experience at NC State.

A female student flies a drone at a research fieldI had never flown anything aside from paper airplanes before I got to graduate school, so having the chance to learn to fly a drone was nerve-racking, but I’m very fortunate to have had the opportunity. 

Finding ways to collect phenotypic data more efficiently using technology such as drones is a big push in plant breeding right now because while the genomic side of things is rapidly accelerating, phenotyping remains the bottleneck. Learning not only how to fly but also how to develop a pipeline to process the images and efficiently extract the traits will hopefully prove to be a useful skill as I move into a career. 

What do you wish you’d known sooner as a student?

I struggle with this question because aside from earning a degree, college is just as much about the academic side as it is about figuring out what’s important to you, how you learn best, your outlook on the world, etc., and while of course there are a million things that knowing sooner would have helped, part of the reason college was so valuable was the chance to figure out those things on your own. 

However, if I had to choose, I would say that just because you’re struggling doesn’t mean you’re not learning. It’s frustrating to not grasp a concept as quickly as your peers or to have to put in a lot of work to learn a new skill, and feelings of self-doubt start to creep in. During those times, it’s important to keep pushing as best you can and to remember to acknowledge your personal breakthroughs along the way.

What do you like most about Crop and Soil Sciences?

The researchers seem genuinely focused on their work and how the impacts will help producers, agriculture, and the environment. This type of authenticity is key when it comes to building a relationship with producers and partners throughout the state. I admire this mentality and hope it’s how I’m perceived as a researcher one day.

What is your career goal?

I want to be part of a plant breeding team in an industry setting. Even though as a young college freshman I was eager to move away from the agricultural realm I’d grown up in and try something new, when I got to college, it was quickly apparent I cared about reducing agriculture’s impact on the environment more than I’d realized. Plant breeding offered this beautiful combination of the theory from genetics courses that I liked with an appealing variety of work settings and responsibilities from time in the greenhouse to the lab to the field to outreach to data analysis on the computer. I hope to work for a team whose goals are breeding for improved tolerance to abiotic stresses. 

What is next for you?

Top of mind is definitely graduating and getting some results published and shared with the scientific community, but once I graduate, I would like to experience some of the opportunities in plant science the Triangle has to offer. I then plan to apply to Ph.D. programs in plant breeding somewhere a little colder because like my advisor likes to joke, this northern germplasm is not well-adapted for North Carolina summers. 

What is your advice to a student thinking about coming to NC State?

NC State has a strong history of plant breeding and associated fields, and there are a lot of opportunities both here at the university and beyond in the Triangle. The academic strength is here, Raleigh is a great place to live as a student, and as long as your advisor seems like a good fit for you, I wouldn’t hesitate to join the Pack!

Can You See Yourself in Crop and Soil Sciences? 

If you are looking for an academic path that leads to discovery, consider Crop and Soil Sciences. Our students learn from expert professors and hands-on adventures every day.  Learn more about student degree pathways including deep dives into our soil science and turfgrass programs. Then sign up for an undergraduate’s guided email tour of our Crop & Soil Sciences Department.  

Connecting students with growing careers is just part of how we are growing the future.

NC State logo on Turf Day