Non-Traditional: Field Crop Researcher – and National Guard Service Member

Picture of Ashley Joyce in a greenhouse

Written by Gary Band

Editor’s Note: National statistics show that “non-traditional” is increasingly the norm for students across the United States – in just one example, 75 percent of graduate students also work at least 30 hours a week. In our Non-Traditional series, we’re highlighting some of our own amazing multi-taskers across CALS. Find other stories in this series here.

At age 27, Ashley Joyce already has a diverse resume.

Trained as an intelligence analyst and a member of the Army National Guard while enrolled as a biology major at NC State, Joyce provided disaster relief to five North Carolina counties after Hurricane Florence.

Now in CALS, Joyce investigates field crops as a full-time research assistant in pursuit of her master’s degree in plant pathology.

She’s eager to continue her research – but first, duty calls: in her role with the Army National Guard, Joyce expects to be deployed soon for up to a year.

Finding her path

Joyce grew up on a 100-acre farm in Gibsonville where her great-grandparents, grandparents and father grew tobacco. The land was sold and turned into a park, but the house where three generations of her family lived has been preserved.

Joyce’s goal had always been a medical career – until she shadowed a few medical professionals and, she joked, decided she liked plants more than people. She switched her focus to plant biology, earning her undergraduate degree from NC State in 2017. In her last semester as a senior, Joyce had worked as a research assistant in Lindsey Thiessen’s lab in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, and she was asked to stay on.

We’re working toward being able to … let farmers know before disaster strikes.

“I found her drive to always do her best endearing,” Thiessen said. “She always exceeds my expectations.”

Joyce has now logged more than two years of professional experience as a full-time research assistant, investigating field crops including soybeans, corn and cotton. She’s currently involved in a project testing fungicide resistance in soybeans. Over the past year, Joyce has taken three classes toward a master’s degree in plant pathology. She hopes to officially enroll in the program in the fall.

First, though, comes her duty to the Army National Guard. She said everyone at NC State has been supportive of her expected deployment, volunteering to take over her work while she’s gone and keep her projects rolling.

Research-based, farmer-focused

Joyce is in the field every day from March to October on North Carolina’s agricultural research stations and on farms identified by Extension agents. She specializes in nematodes, or microscopic worms, along with other potentially harmful pests and crop diseases that can have a major economic impact.

Especially interested in applied pathology, she much prefers being outside and interacting with growers. Her work involves determining and communicating the cost of the treatments, both in terms of the cost of the fungicide and the labor to apply it. Her work shows how much more production a farmer could get, so the farmer can decide if it’s worth the cost and effort.

Farmers know so much already. We’re just here to provide more tools to make the best decision.

“Research is good,” Joyce said, “but if farmers can’t use it, what’s that point?”

Joyce likes the fact that the nature of this work has a direct impact and enjoys working directly with North Carolina growers, seeing their problems and then helping to simplify and solve them.

“Farmers know so much already, we’re just here to provide them with more tools to make the best decision,” she said. “We’re working toward being able to predict when diseases will be at their worst and letting farmers know before disaster strikes. ”

Tackling important issues

Thiessen believes Joyce has helped the department tackle some important issues in field crop disease management.

“Her work on foliar leaf spots in soybeans and corn has helped to develop management recommendations for N.C. producers,” Thiessen said. “She also has helped to generate some nice data to evaluate seed treatments in North Carolina.”

In addition, Joyce has helped author several factsheets as well as peer-reviewed plant disease management reports.

“I can’t imagine where my program would be without her working with us the last couple of years,” Thiessen said.

It’s so satisfying at the end of the season to see our work come to fruition.

For her part, Joyce said, “I just love being out there. Even though it’s hot and tiring, it’s so satisfying at the end of the season to see our work come to fruition.”

Of her education and experience at NC State and plans for the future, Joyce said the department is a great place to be with many opportunities.  While still figuring out what she wants to do and open to looking into other options, such as the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “I imagine I’ll be around here for a while,” she said.

Thiessen would like that as well. Calling her an “invaluable asset,” she hopes Joyce will stay on after completing her degree.

“NC State has one of the best programs in the country for plant pathology, and we continue to produce excellent, driven scientists,” Thiessen said.

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