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College Profile: Danesha Seth Carley

With an ecologist’s heart and mind, Danesha Seth Carley helps lead the College’s sustainability programs.

“Sustainability” can mean lots of different things to different people.

But for Dr. Danesha Seth Carley, the heart of the concept is actually quite simple: people, planet, profit.

This “triple bottom line” guides her work as coordinator of the College’s first-ever Office of Sustainability Programs.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to my neighbor in our yard or the vice president of a major company,” Seth Carley says. “The question always is, ‘How do you define sustainability?’

“I’ve always tried to take a very inclusive approach,” she says. “If our faculty are being socially conscious and responsible, working toward protecting the environment and helping growers operate viable businesses, then they fit under our office’s sustainability umbrella, and we will promote their programs.”

Hired in fall 2011, Seth Carley set out to build a program that would accomplish three goals: facilitate partnerships that focus on sustainability, raise awareness of the College’s efforts in this area and serve as an information clearinghouse on many sustainability-related activities in the College.

With programs in areas ranging from climate change to local foods to integrated pest management, the College boasts a number of faculty working in sustainability, often partnered with colleagues from other departments.

“In less than one year, we built the CALS Office of Sustainability from nothing – literally – to a recognizable brand,” Seth Carley says.

In its first two years, the office has hosted several executive education “Sustainability in Agriculture” courses with participants including Bayer CropScience and Wal-Mart, in addition to classes with Leadership Triangle on the importance of sustainable, local agriculture. The office also recently launched a Bee Pollinator Health Initiative to raise awareness of the importance of bee pollinators in agriculture and the environment.

The other half of the two-person shop, communications specialist Carrie Rogers, coordinates special events and manages the website, blog and Twitter feed that spotlight the College’s latest sustainability-related activities, programs and faculty accomplishments.

For Seth Carley, the concept of sustainability extends far beyond her work. It’s as much a part of who she is as her eye color and her exuberant laugh.

Born in 1976 in an old hunting cabin in the West Virginia mountains, Seth Carley grew up without electricity or indoor plumbing. So spending time outside was a necessity. “I think that started my love of science, even though I didn’t know it at the time,” she says. “I remember spending my days with my nose on the ground, just looking at plants and the way they grew. We lived in a valley with a large stream running through the property, so we had riparian ecology and mountainous ecology.

“I remember seeing that different plants grew down in the low-lying area than grew up on the mountain, and I remember thinking, ‘Why is that?’”

Her parents, who made the move from inner-city New Jersey to rural West Virginia in pursuit of a simpler life, operated a small organic vegetable farm. Seth Carley’s mother also worked as a public school teacher, and her father is a carpenter.

“We put up all our own food,” Seth Carley says. “There were always chores to do on the farm. We were always outside.
“I think because I didn’t have television, I’ve always been interested in the outdoors,” she says. “When I was 12, my parents built a house on the property and we got electricity and hot and cold running water. It was very exciting.”

After graduating from high school, Seth Carley attended Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, with a focus on ecology, in 1998. She then went to work for outdoor education center Arlington Eco in Maryland, helping run summer camps for “city kids to get out into the environment,” she says.

One year later, she decided to pursue a master’s degree.

“I’d always been fascinated by ecology, but as I was going through biology in college, I became interested in disease, particularly viruses and how they spread,” Seth Carley says. “So I decided I wanted to study epidemiology and the spread of diseases in humans.”

But the thought of holding someone else’s life in her hands was “horrifying,” so after a heart-to-heart with her mother, Seth Carley realized she was destined for a different path.

“My mom said, ‘You’re an ecologist. It’s obvious,’” Seth Carley says. “When I was little I would transplant plants from all over the farm into a little shade garden that mom had set up for me, and I watched how they interacted, how they spread. I realized in that moment I could take my love of ecology and plants and my fascination with diseases and put it all together by studying plant pathology.”

In 2001, she earned her master’s degree in entomology and plant pathology from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. She then came to N.C. State to pursue her doctoral degree, working under the guidance of retired professor of plant pathology Dr. Turner Sutton and Dr. David Jordan, Extension specialist and professor of crop science.

“Even though I was an ecologist, and would still consider myself an ecologist, I’ve always been interested in doing more than just studying ecology,” Seth Carley says. “I want to help people.

“My goal had always been to work in some sort of sustainable agriculture, and that’s why I decided to pursue plant pathology,” she says. “If we can help people protect against agricultural pests in a healthy way, with less chemistry, we might be able to help growers in developing countries protect their crops and have more food for themselves and their families.”

As an N.C. State student, Seth Carley served as president of the graduate student association and volunteered as a driver for the American Cancer Society, taking patients to their treatment appointments.

During her last semester of graduate school, life came to a screeching halt.

Her husband, Tod Carley, 29 at the time, developed health complications that necessitated major heart surgery. The couple also had just begun the adoption process and had to put those plans on hold.

“The experience refocused me,” Seth Carley says. “I was really fortunate that my committee members saw value in who I was and what I was doing and offered my name to a professor in crop science who was looking for a postdoctoral research associate.

“I remember meeting Tom Rufty for the first time, and he said this job would be a departure from what I’d been doing, which had been working with food crops,” she says. “It was a position in turfgrass, but he told me that my skills in pathology, pest management and crop science would apply.”

In 2006, she began work in Rufty’s lab and completed her Ph.D. in two majors – crop science and plant pathology – becoming the first person in her family to earn advanced degrees.

“My job news was shocking for my parents, because they’re hippies and think golf courses are evil,” Seth Carley says with a laugh. “And I reminded them that they’d always taught me that it’s easier to effect change from within, so I would go into this turfgrass research and I would try to help these golf course superintendents protect the environment that they work in and do a better job of resource allocation and bring biodiversity to their golf courses, and that would be my job.

Of course my parents quickly became my biggest supporters.”

Seth Carley, shown here at N.C. State's Lonnie Poole Golf Course, has worked to make golf courses from North Carolina to Arizona more sustainable.
Seth Carley, shown here at N.C. State’s Lonnie Poole GOlf Course, has worked to make golf courses from North Carolina to Arizona more sustainable.

During her postdoc, Seth Carley worked with Arnold Palmer’s design team on the ecology of the Lonnie Poole Golf Course on N.C. State’s Centennial Campus, which was designed to be a sustainable site.

Just before the golf course opened in 2008, Seth Carley became assistant director of the Southern Region IPM Center. It was also in 2008 that she became a mother, adopting her son, Minh, from an orphanage in Vietnam.

“I’ll never forget when we finally got the phone call,” she says. “I burst into tears. Six months later, we went to his orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City, and they handed us this beautiful baby boy. He was 14 months old and had never eaten solid food or been outside his crib.

“So we taught him to crawl, taught him sign language and fed him,” she says. “He learned the sign for more food instantly. The day we came home with Minh, they closed foreign adoptions in Vietnam.”

With a healthy husband and a new baby, Seth Carley says she enjoyed her position at the Southern Region IPM Center, calling it a wonderful experience. It wasn’t long, though, before she was tapped to provide leadership for the CALS Office of Sustainability.

In 2011, she became coordinator of the new office and research assistant professor in the Department of Crop Science.

My only caveat for this position was to still be able to do research,” Seth Carley says. “I knew I’d love this job, but I needed to be able to go outside and get back in touch with the earth. That’s what I’ve always loved.”

Her research program focuses on sustainable managed urban ecosystems, and she works to make golf courses from North Carolina to Arizona more sustainable.

“It’s been a lot of fun, and it’s been challenging,” Seth Carley says. “We have an incredible wealth of different programs and different research happening in the College. I try to fit the right programs with the right industry groups.

“We work with all sorts of different groups,” she says. “I don’t discriminate. If someone wants to talk about sustainability in CALS, I will talk with them. It can get tricky because there are groups and individuals with their own, different definitions of sustainability, but that’s part of what makes a university community so wonderful.”

In the next few years, Seth Carley says she hopes to expand the office’s executive education courses and launch a new initiative – the “Sustainable Urban Landscapes Consortium” – which will be designed to raise awareness of the importance of green space in the urban environment. This will include offering small grants to researchers doing work in sustainable turf and landscapes and for outreach and Extension activities that help to educate the public about the benefits of urban green space.

And little Minh, now almost six years old, has aspirations to be a scientist (an “antomologist,” Seth Carley says with a smile).

Nose to the ground, watching the bugs and plants, dreaming big dreams.

Just like his mom.

— Suzanne Stanard