Student Spotlight: DeShae Dillard on NC State’s New AgBioFEWS Program

Student on a paved path, squatting down near ornamental grass.

AgBioFEWS Fellow DeShae Dillard hopes to find new ways to manage crop pests.

When he first set foot in Columbia, North Carolina, this summer, DeShae Dillard felt as though he’d arrived in another country.

Having grown up in a Seattle suburb, the incoming NC State student wasn’t used to being in a town where everyone knew everyone else. And he’d never really spoken to a farmer, much less heard firsthand accounts of the financial and production challenges they face.

Dillard is among nine Ph.D. students participating in a new NC State program called AgBioFEWS. That’s short for Agricultural Biotechnology in Our Evolving Food, Energy and Water Systems. The program – funded largely by the National Science Foundation through NC State’s Genetic Engineering and Society Center — kicked off this summer. Its goal is to deepen participants’ technical understanding of agriculture, biotechnology, ecology and genetics while also integrating knowledge from other fields related to creating workable agricultural biotechnology solutions.

Academic disciplines represented in the inaugural class of AgBioFEWS fellows include biomathematics, communication, functional genomics, forestry and environmental resources, plant biology, agricultural and extension education and natural resource economics. Dillard had been a pre-med student at Gonzaga University, but an undergraduate research project inspired him to shift his focus to entomology.

This summer, Dillard and the other AgBioFEWS participants spent two weeks learning about North Carolina agriculture, especially in the state’s northeastern region, where both agriculture and natural resources conservation are critical to the economy.

It’s really important for everyone, and especially researchers working in agriculture, to interact with farmers.

Dillard said that visits with farmers, leaders of environmental agencies and groups, Extension agents, lenders and others gave him a deeper perspective of the impacts of agricultural biotechnology on people and the environment.

“The AgBioFEWS program challenges you to continuously grow and to view things from different angles,” he said. “I realized that it’s really important for everyone, and especially researchers working in agriculture, to really interact with farmers, step foot on a farm and see what it’s like at the ground level so you can understand things from a farmer’s perspective. That perspective is really important and can play a big role when it comes to adopting research-based agricultural solutions.”

What’s your career goal?

I’m not sure. At the moment, I’m interested in exploring positions outside of academia. NC State has a lot of connections with industry and with policymakers, and quite a few individuals outside of academia speak here. I think this will be a good place to explore a range of opportunities.

What drew you to the AgBioFEWS program?

I got my undergraduate degree at Gonzaga University, where there is a big emphasis on studying multiple disciplines. That was important to me, and what drew me to AgBioFEWS is the fact that you get to work in an interdisciplinary group. In this day and age when you’re working in science, you need to be flexible and able to work across fields.

Each discipline has a way of viewing the world and reviewing certain problems. As an entomologist, the major question I might ask is, “What kind of pest problems do you see on your farm?” But when someone from another discipline approaches the farmer, they come from a different angle. If they’re from communications, for example, they might be interested in how that farmer interacts with society and how that impacts their decisions on the farm. Sometimes it’s important to come at things from a completely different perspective or from multiple perspectives.

What will your Ph.D. research focus on?

When I started looking at grad schools, I knew I wanted to do something with insects, but I was much more interested in applied research and figuring out how I could make larger impacts at the national and global level. With insects, the largest thing that you can really focus on is pest management in agriculture.

Right now, I’m interested in looking at alternative methods to reduce pests. A lot of times we focus on biotechnologies and on chemical applications like pesticides and herbicides, but there are a lot of other areas that you can focus on – cultural techniques, for example. I’m interested in how we can use other techniques, along with chemicals and biotechnologies, to overcome the challenge farmers face of having insect pests quickly build up resistance to the technologies we use. This poses a big risk when it comes to global food security.

What did you learn from the two-week field experience you had this summer through the AgBioFEWS program?

Farming is a much more complicated process than I imagined.

The whole goal of this two weeks was just to get a snapshot of what agriculture looks like in Northeastern North Carolina, and then from there, we’re going to use all of that information we collected to develop a research project geared toward that specific area.

A lot of us in the program, including me, come from nonagricultural backgrounds and have very preconceived notions of what farming is like and how farming is done. Through this experience, I’ve learned that farming is a much more complicated process than I imagined. Farming has a lot of key serious issues that it’s facing right now, and it needs the help of both the general public and scientists to overcome these issues.

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