NC State doctoral student Lindsey Becker loves plants, and she wants to find new ways to keep them healthy. To achieve career success in academia, industry or government, she knows that she needs more than strong experience in her discipline. She also needs training in the so-called soft skills.
As one of 17 Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research Fellows nationwide, Becker is getting both. The NC State-based interdisciplinary training program, funded by a $2.7 million grant from the foundation and matched by industry, is designed to prepare the next generation of food and agricultural scientists for productive careers.
The FFAR Fellows begin their 3-year program with a one-week professional development session at NC State focusing on communication, teamwork, leadership and related skills. They are also matched with mentors in both academia and industry.
Becker, who earned her undergraduate degree from the College of Wooster in Ohio, is one of three NC State students selected for the inaugural class.
How did you end up at NC State, studying plant pathology?
After graduation, I found a job at Duke University in a forest ecology and mycology lab. I enjoyed working with plants and studying their associated microbes. My mentor at the time, Soledad Benitez, introduced me to the field of plant pathology.
As soon as I discovered plant pathology, I loved it. There’s something about working with pathogens and complex plant-microbe interactions that is very intriguing. Through my connections with the mycology lab, I was introduced to my current advisor at NC State, Dr. Marc Cubeta.
What’s your career goal?
One of the reasons I wanted to study plant pathology was because I saw several feasible options for careers after graduating. There are a lot of opportunities within the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, academia and industry. Raleigh is a biotechnology hub and home to several companies that focus on crop protection and production. I appreciate that FFAR gives me an opportunity to make meaningful connections in industry, and I am also considering a career in academia.
Can you describe your research?
The idea that eventually farmers can add microbes to their crops to not only control disease but also boost crop yield is the long-term goal. I work specifically with a fungus, Mortierella elongata, that was isolated from cottonwood tree roots. We normally find this fungus in soil, so we are interested in its ability to decompose organic matter as well as to associate intimately with plant roots.
My research focuses on the plant growth-promotion properties of M. elongata, especially flowering and fruit production in tomato. Most research on plant growth promotion by fungal endophytes focuses on plant weight or height, but I am more interested in effects on flowering and crop yield.
Why did you decide to apply for the FFAR Fellowship?
One of my mentors, Soledad Benitez, shared a link about the program, and I jumped at the chance to have a mentor from industry and an additional mentor from NC State. The professional development component, agriculture emphasis, and science policy focus is a welcome addition to my Ph.D. training.
How has the FFAR program been helpful?
There are so many wonderful things about this program. It gave me an opportunity to solicit additional mentors I had admired and wanted to build a relationship with (Deborah Springer of Novozymes and Amy Grunden of NC State’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology).
Also, the FFAR Fellows are absolutely wonderful people. The weeklong retreat that kicked off the program was fantastic in terms of professional development workshops and also bonding with the other fellows. The fact that we are all in different universities and departments means that we can really open up to each other and support each other in a meaningful way.
The FFAR program remains cohesive throughout the year with monthly professional development webinars that cover a range of topics that are relevant to industry but also apply to graduate school. The program also includes yearly professional development goals that I really value and prioritize alongside my research goals.
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NOTE: FFAR Fellowships come in two types. One includes a stipend for tuition, fees and other expenses, and the application period has closed for 2019. The second is for membership in the cohort but doesn’t include a stipend. Application due date for the non-stipend version is April 15, 2019.
This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.