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CALS Pack Strong: ‘The Rest Was Up to Me’

Holly del Grande in a field of carnivorous plants
Holly del Grande has always been captivated by plants, including these carnivorous plants near Wilmington.

For North Carolina State University alumna Holly del Grande, experiences gained as an undergraduate in horticultural science have blossomed into an unintended, and yet gratifying, job in a field she loves.

A December 2020 graduate, Del Grande came to NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2017 from her hometown in Asheboro. She started in another degree program but quickly realized that horticulture was a better fit.

Through a series of twists and turns, her long-term love of plants led her to rewarding work in the blueberry laboratory and greenhouse run by Dr. Hamid Ashrafi, an assistant professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences.

In turn, that experience led her to her current contract job with plants at one of the world’s leading agricultural companies, BASF.

And now, that job new has sparked her interest in pursuing plant research as a long-term career.

“I can thank that job with Dr. Ashrafi for my job now, for sure. It gave me the experience I needed,” she said.

Del Grande recently talked about her passion for plants, her experience at NC State and what she’d like to do next.

What led you to study horticulture at NC State?

I fell in love with NC State the first time I visited, but I realized after the first week of being there that the degree program I’d picked wasn’t the right place for me. My mom suggested I consider something related to my love of plants. It was always a hobby, but I never thought of doing something with plants as a major.

How did you develop a love of plants?

My parents were both really into gardening – more so my mom. It’s always been something that we’ve done as a family. I had a lot of house plants, and I looked at plants as always being a work in progress. It’s very satisfying to start a plant off from so small and then end up making it bigger and more beautiful. It’s been a part of who I am for a long time that it made a lot of sense to pick that as a potential career choice.

How did you come to work in Dr. Ashrafi’s blueberry breeding greenhouse and lab?

I was working at a retail garden center in Raleigh, and they cut the hours a lot of the part-time workers in the late summer, when it gets hot and people aren’t doing as much landscaping. I knew that going into the job and that I’d need to find another opportunity.

My friend Lauren was a master’s student in Dr. Ashrafi’s lab and told me they needed more undergraduate students in the lab. He told me that I should reach out, and then I think within a few days I did an interview, and then a couple of days later, I was in the lab.

What was your experience in the lab and greenhouse like?

I really liked that Dr. Ashrafi was so accessible. I could stop by his office and get help with anything.

But when I started off, it was a little nerve wracking because I really didn’t know what I was doing. Still, I ended up really liking it. I would go work on my other job at the garden center during the day and then come into the lab around 3 o’clock and work on phenotyping of the blueberries, taking measurements of things like size, weight, acidity and firmness – all the things that go into making a good blueberry. I liked that, but I wanted to get my hands dirty.

Eventually I moved out into the greenhouse, where I took care of plants – fertilizing, watering, trimming up things, keeping an eye out for pest and diseases. Sometimes I worked with people in the lab.

I hadn’t seen myself being involved in research like this because my family wasn’t into research. I didn’t fully understand what it was and how much NC State was involved.

What did the experience mean to you?

It gave me good experience in working independently. Before that, my jobs involved following direct requests and orders of superiors. Dr. Ashrafi would ask me for help on specific things occasionally, but for the most part I didn’t have a set schedule. I would get things like fertilizing done by a certain time, and the rest was up to me.

At the beginning, the independence was a bit scary. I didn’t want to mess anything up. But over time I gained confidence. I liked being able to make my own decisions and do what I thought was best, and I think that will be important in my career.

What’s your current job like?

I’m working through a recruiting company, so I’m on a year-long contract. I’ve only been on the job a short time, but my hope that it will continue into something else. My official title is herbicide research assistant within BASF Biology. I’m in the herbicide group.

Right now, I’m growing weeds, which is a good first serious greenhouse job, because weeds are easy to grow. A lot of my time is spent in a greenhouse, transplanting weeds, watering, them, scouting pests and other things. I hope I’ll get to do some other things, too.

I never really saw research as a career job, but now that I’m here, I’m enjoying it so much. Maybe this is where I’m meant to be, and ornamental gardening will remain a great hobby.