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Alumni and Friends

Ryan Heiniger’s Journey to NC State

Combine in corn field

Ryan Heiniger woke up around 5:00 a.m. for a drive to Mount Airy, North Carolina in order to harvest corn. These early mornings and long days in the field are common for Heiniger, who is the official variety testing (OVT) program manager for NC State University.

“I love it,” Heiniger said. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

While Heiniger has now found a career that he describes as his passion, he said that his path to his current position was not linear. In fact, while Heiniger grew up on a farm, he did not envision himself working in agriculture. 

“Growing up on a dairy farm you learn very quickly whether you love or don’t love animals,” Heiniger said. “I did not love animals, but I loved the field part of it: the prepping, the harvesting, the planting, all that kind of stuff.”

Since Heiniger loved science, he followed different pursuits in this broad realm, including receiving a microbiology undergraduate degree, an immunology graduate degree, working at a genetics company, and eventually working on wheat and soybean variety development with Syngenta.

All of these positions have led Heiniger to his current role in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. In this position, Heiniger investigates which varieties and hybrids of crops grow best in certain environments across North Carolina, and then he shares this information with growers. Heiniger explores the influence of a variety of factors on crop yield, from seed type to environmental conditions. 

Heiniger’s journey to his current position aligns with the adage: sometimes what you are looking for is right in front of you. 

While an undergraduate student at NC State University, Heiniger was a microbiology major with a pre-medical concentration. He took the entrance examination for medical school, the MCAT, and then began working at a genetics company after he graduated in what he anticipated would be a gap year. 

However, when Heiniger received the phone call that he had been accepted to medical school, he was lukewarm about the opportunity. 

“When they called me and said I had been accepted to medical school, my reaction was that I have to think about it,” he said. 

Heiniger realized that medicine was not his passion, but he was not quite sure yet what the right career fit was for him. Over the next seven years, he worked to find it, including receiving his master’s degree in immunology and working for Syngenta. But it was not until he began working at NC State University as the official variety testing program manager that he found the right career fit. 

I finally knew the difference between what I had just been kind of wandering through versus what I really wanted to do, what you wake up wanting to get to,” Heiniger said.

Now in his role at NC State University, he leverages his diverse background to understand which crop varieties and hybrids fare best across different conditions. His job managing the OVT allows him to build close connections with growers and extension agents across the state and spend time outdoors with crops, which he said he enjoys. 

“I’m able to take tangible varieties that are available commercially or through public institutions, test them across a wide range of environments, see how they fit and give that data directly to a grower,” Heiniger said. “It has a direct impact on their bottom line, because if they use my data, they can find out what does and doesn’t work for them by different soil types or different characteristics.

In this position, Heiniger can work with researchers on a variety of different projects, including the FUN-CROPS project, which is led by Christine Hawkes, a professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. The goal of the FUN-CROPS project is to investigate how fungi inside leaves, called endophytes, can potentially facilitate aspects of a plant’s growth, including deterring disease and improving its ability to handle abiotic conditions. Read more at this prior feature on the FUN-CROPS project. 

“Ryan is an outstanding collaborator,” Hawkes said. “He makes working with the OVT program easy, and he brings new ideas, tools, and perspectives to the research.”

A helpful step in conducting this research is to first gain an understanding of what endophytes exist across different conditions. That’s where Heiniger’s plots with OVT come into play. Since Heiniger’s program examines a variety of crop hybrids, Hawkes’ team could collect leaf samples from their plots as opposed to starting from scratch. These samples were then taken back to the laboratory so that the existing endophyte populations could be examined.

While researchers are examining these endophytes in the laboratory, Heiniger is working outside of the lab to communicate with growers in their communities. He explains that many growers may know fungi only for its less-than-loved impacts. However, Heiniger is relaying to growers through informal conversations how fungi can also lead to advantageous effects for their crops. 

“I think it’s immensely important to have that initial, basic conversation first. Fungi are there, they can be good and or bad,” Heiniger said. “Why is this important to you? Why should you pay attention to this research?”

Helping to shift the conversation around fungi is just one small “building block” that Heiniger is working on to create the groundwork for sharing future findings about fungi. But for Heiniger, he is grateful for each step of his work. While it took him some time to find exactly what he wants to do, Ryan feels he is exactly where he is supposed to be. 

Heiniger’s advice to current NC State students?

“Do everything. Try everything. Never say no to an opportunity,” he said. “It may be the thing that you hate the most, but it also may be the one thing you find that jives with you.”

Combine pours corn from harvest