Student Spotlight: Spencer Haroldson

Two men work in a crop science lab

NC State’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences is home to a booming population of over 250 graduate and undergraduate students. Our mission is to connect them with opportunities and careers that solve growing challenges.

Our students are daily on the move between classes, homework, and hands-on research and fieldwork. We caught up with Spencer Haroldson, a junior crop biotechnology major, to learn about his academic journey and future plans. 

Hi Spencer, where are you from?

Cary, North Carolina.

What led you to NC State and CSSC?

NC State student Spencer Haroldson I first decided to pursue crop biotechnology at NC State because I became aware of the prevalence of food insecurity not only outside the United States but also here in local North Carolinian communities. 

Simply stated, I grew up fortunate – not once during my upbringing did I worry about whether dinner would be served after a long day of school. Early on while I was in high school, I grew fond of biological sciences, but it wasn’t until I took AP Environmental Science that I found out what I wanted to pursue professionally. 

As I flipped through our substantial environmental science textbook, I landed on a page that discussed a somewhat new biotechnological innovation at the time called golden rice. Golden rice is a genetically engineered rice variety developed with the humanitarian goal to reduce the prevalence of diseases caused by vitamin A deficiency. 

After diving deeper into the story of golden rice, I decided that crop biotechnology would be the perfect degree that would allow me to harness my love for biology and also work toward my goal of improving food security. 

golden rice growing in a field
The nutritional promise of golden rice captured Spencer’s interest in high school. Photo courtesy of Sistak on Flickr.

What topics in this field of study most interest you?

​​My favorite topics are those that involve the powerful tools of biotechnology to manipulate an organism’s genome. I have taken a handful of classes dealing with biotechnology and genetics so far, and I think what fascinates me the most about these topics is the amount of information that is still unknown. 

Humans now have the incredible power to edit genomes precisely and accurately, and although this comes with a lot of responsibility, the power held within this technology is immense and has the capability of enhancing agriculture- as wells as other facets of life — quite substantially.

What have been your favorite classes so far?

it inspired me to think about how I can use science in the future to solve some of the world’s most pressing biological issues.

My favorite class so far has been Biotechnology (BIT) 410 Manipulation of Recombinant DNA because it was my first taste of what it’s like to create a recombinant organism. This core biotechnology class delves into the basics of moving a gene from one organism to another through the process of molecular cloning and transformation. 

I fell in love with BIT 410 Manipulation of Recombinant DNA because of the range of applicability of biotechnology. Students majoring in all sorts of life sciences: microbiology, horticulture, biomedical engineering, etc., were all enrolled in BIT 410 for their own unique reasons. 

The diversity and the range of applicability of BIT 410 course material not only spoke to me about the significance of modern biotechnology, but more importantly, it inspired me to think about how I can use science in the future to solve some of the world’s most pressing biological issues.

Do you participate in any student groups or clubs?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I would volunteer with NC State’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity, where students would get together and help build affordable homes for Wake county families. 

There were many things about Habitat that I enjoyed, starting with the fact that everyone is working for a great cause. I enjoyed getting out of bed early on Saturdays to get to the build site as it made me feel more productive, then once the day’s work was complete, I felt joy from donating my time to help others. 

I am unsure whether Habitat is back in action, but I would definitely reach out to a volunteer organization and donate time every once in a while if you ever find yourself with some spare time. 

Another campus activity that I enjoy getting involved in is intramural sports. I personally love sand volleyball, but there is a plethora of sports/games to choose from.

What types of hands-on experiences have you had at NC State?

I have worked in a couple of labs on a few different projects during my time here at NC State. My first undergraduate research experience was with Dr. Lindsey Thiessen’s field crops pathology lab. I started working with Dr. Thiessen right as COVID restrictions were being lifted so much of my responsibilities were completed from a distance. 

An NC State student inspects corn plants for diseaseI began my research by writing fact sheets for the NC State Extension website. The two fact sheets I wrote on target spot of tobacco and blue mold of tobacco were designed to support North Carolina’s farming industry by providing short, informative write-ups on common crop diseases in the state. Once I was able to work in person, I shifted responsibilities to assist with field data collection, pathogen cell culture, and greenhouse maintenance.

After just a few months working with Dr. Thiessen, I once again shifted responsibilities and took on a larger project with Dr. Jennie Fagen as a part of her life engineering lab. During my time with Dr. Fagen, I worked on a hemp microbiome project where my primary responsibilities included isolating fungi and bacteria from various soil samples across the state. Once I had isolated microorganisms from the soil samples, I set up direct competition assays to see how well each microbe could compete with the devastating hemp pathogen Fusarium oxysporum. Once the results from the assays were obtained, I moved the microbes into long-term storage and then started the process over again. Secondary responsibilities in this role included growing hemp in the greenhouse, and preparing cuttings when necessary. 

My most recent research experience investigated Lactuca sativa transcriptomics across root and shoot tissue with Dr. Carly Sjogren, Dylan Neal, and Andrew Alford. We worked as a team to grow various crops and the model species Arabidopsis thaliana in order to see how gene families were expressed differently among the plant species and tissue types. Once our research came to an end, I was able to present our work at NC State’s 2021 Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium. 

Can You See Yourself in Crop and Soil Sciences? 

If you are looking for an academic path that leads to impact, 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.

tractor mowing a field