PSI Profile: Hannah Burrack, Director of Education and Outreach

Hannah Burrack in front of a corn field.

Hannah Burrack, a professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, was recently appointed the Director of Education and Outreach for the North Carolina Plant Sciences Initiative (N.C. PSI).

She is well-known for her Extension and research work focused on managing the insects that plague tobacco, berries and other specialty crops. She also teaches a course on writing grant and fellowship applications for graduate students in the biological sciences. She was highly involved in shaping N.C. PSI as a chair for the Plant Improvement Platform Sub Task Force and as a member of the Research and Technology Task Force.

As Director of Education and Outreach, she will help develop and integrate the academic and Extension components of N.C. PSI projects and programs with the overall N.C. PSI goals and objectives. She will also assist the yet-to-be-hired Executive Director in managing relationships with N.C. PSI’s many stakeholder groups.

We talked with Burrack to learn more about her new position, and her favorite Howling Cow Ice Cream flavor.

How do you see the position of Director of Education and Outreach for the Plant Sciences Initiative?

Hannah Burrack in front of a corn field.
As the new Director of Education and Outreach for the North Carolina Plant Sciences Initiative, Hannah Burrack she will help develop and integrate the academic and Extension components of N.C. PSI projects and programs with the overall N.C. PSI goals and objectives. Photo by Marc Hall

This position was added after the ball got rolling on some of the other activities, in order to be able to really connect end-users with the information that’s going to be generated in the Plant Sciences Initiative. Those end users could be practitioners — people who are going to be utilizing a translatable tool that’s produced — which would fall under the umbrella of Extension and outreach.

They might be students who are going to be benefiting from collaboration with scientists in N.C. PSI, either by mentorship in our laboratories, by internship opportunities, by the ability to take a seminar course or do a walkthrough and understand some of the cutting-edge opportunities that exist there.

And thirdly, they could be the public in general. A substantial amount of the funding for the Plant Sciences Building (PSB) is coming from public sources, so being able to demonstrate the benefits of N.C. PSI to the citizens of North Carolina, whether or not they are directly engaged in plant production or plant-based research, is critical.

I see my role in the N.C. PSI as creating an expectation of connection — an expectation of engagement with stakeholder groups outside of the N.C. PSI. There is already an expectation of connection and engagement between scientists and across disciplines, but my role is really to take that outside of the sciences to others who are not as directly connected to N.C PSI.

What are your goals for the new position?

I have some really specific goals, and I have some long-term goals. On the education side of things, my really specific goals are: I want to see students physically involved in the PSB. We know that’s going to happen with graduate students who might be supported by funding that comes through N.C. PSI, but I want to see undergraduate students having a physical presence in the building in a meaningful way. That could be through coursework, seminars or coordinated internships. I want to see graduate students, who may not be housed in the PSB’s laboratories, having a meaningful connection with N.C. PSI, perhaps through seminars, internships or fellowship opportunities. So, on the education side, I want to see students physically connected and engaged at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

On the outreach side of things, I expect researchers who are involved in N. C. PSI, to be able to articulate who their stakeholders are. When they do that, I expect them to be able to have a vision of who that is. Not just saying, “Farmers in North Carolina,” I want them to know what that looks like, who those people are, how their day-to-day operations function.

And because of that, I want to get the researchers who are in the PSB out and interacting with those individuals. I want to have a process by which we connect them with county-based Extension agents, we connect them with some of our grower thought leaders, we connect them maybe with some of our lower-resource communities who have very different needs profiles than some of our high-end, multimillion-dollar operations.

I’m not expecting the plant scientists to necessarily understand every component of an agricultural system, but I expect them to stick their heads up and say, “Hey, can we call some Extension agents and ask them how this functions?” Or, “Hey, can we go to a grower meeting and see what questions they’re asking; what problems they’re facing?”

What are you looking forward to the most about your new position?

I think the most exciting thing about this position is that there is a lot to do. There’s a ton of decisions that have to be made, a lot of moving parts that have to be integrated in a relatively short period of time. So, there’s the potential to have a really big impact really quickly. That’s also kind of daunting and intimidating.

I think just the sheer amount of work that needs to be done is really exciting. And it’s very different than the day-to-day of being a university researcher. It’s a nice opportunity to really have some immediate impact. Large organizations, like universities, tend to move slowly. But that’s not the case with N.C. PSI right now. There’s a lot of stuff that has to move fast, so that is an exciting position to be in. So, being able to see tangible change in a short, relatively short amount of time is really exciting.

I also think there’s so much potential in the N.C. PSI for real significant change and impact, at NC State, the state of North Carolina, and on a national and international basis. We do this well, we’ll be laying the groundwork for really important scientific impact, and measurable outputs. If we do this well, we’ll actually be able to change things.

What is your favorite plant?

Woman and child in a corn field.
Professor and Extension specialist in Entomology and plant pathology, Hannah Burrack and her daughter examine an insect they found in a corn field at the Lake Wheeler farm. Photo by Marc Hall

I’m an entomologist, so my focus is on bugs that eat plants. Of all the crops that I work on, I would say that strawberries are my favorite. They are my favorite thing to eat. My kids love them. And they are most active during a time of the year when it’s really nice out. Strawberry season in North Carolina goes from April to the usually end of June, which is the nicest time of year. From a research standpoint, I like all my crops. They’re all fun, and they’re exciting in their own way, but if I had to pick one thing to work on, it would probably be strawberries.

As far as things I don’t work on, we have some really beautiful oak trees in our yard. Really big, old trees just make it super livable and pleasant.

What is your favorite Howling Cow ice cream flavor?

It’s probably Wolf Tracks, because that’s the one I’ve had the most. I will say in general I’m a big fan of any ice cream that has peanut butter in it and any ice cream with marshmallow. Marshmallow and peanut butter are my two favorite ice cream flavors that are kind of wacky and off-the-wall and are hard to find. If you can work those in there, I’m probably going to be a fan.

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This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.