Plants, pests, pathology - Improving crops one row at a time
Contact 1: Erin Chesnut
MARTIN, Tenn. – Autumn McLaughlin, of Erwin, graduated May 5 from the University of Tennessee at Martin with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and plans to use her education to improve the way food producers approach and combat crop-damaging insects and disease.
“I found my passion here, and I never changed my major. I love what I do in plant and soil science,” she said.
McLaughlin does not come from an agricultural background. However, early involvement in such programs as 4-H and Future Farmers of America ultimately led her to UT Martin and helped her discover an interest in insects and disease in row crops. She plans to pursue both master’s and doctoral degrees in entomology and pathology, fields in which she has already gained internship experience.
After submitting dozens of applications to internships across the country last fall, McLaughlin ultimately accepted the one she never thought she would receive: an opportunity to spend the summer of 2017 in Hawaii.
“I put in my application in, and never thought that someone from a small university would get this internship,” she admitted. The internship with Monsanto – a multinational company that produces seed corn and other agricultural products – provided McLaughlin the chance to work with the first stages of corn development in order to improve the process and ultimately the quality of the product received by producers.
“When you think of Hawaii, you think of pineapples or vacations – nothing row-crop related at all. … But I was working with field corn,” she said. “The project I was working on dealt with an insect vectoring disease to Hawaii corn, which is detrimental to their operations. They have many fields they must put down as lost because of this problem. My whole project was to track the movement of the insect and try to get more basic information to figure out how to control it. …
“About every (bag of) seed corn you get from Monsanto goes through the Hawaii site at one point because it’s part of their supply chain. It takes half the time for corn to hit maturity in Hawaii as it does here in Tennessee,” McLaughlin explained. “They are rapidly producing this corn to produce better-yielding corn for farmers on the mainland. So having a problem in Hawaii, where the hub is… they have to keep control of it because they don’t want it to destroy their fields. That’s years and years of research knocked out.”
McLaughlin’s internship supervisor chose her for the program partially because of her interest in entomology, which served her well for this particular project. While working with interns from other, larger schools, McLaughlin developed an appreciation for the preparation she received in her UT Martin courses.
“(My entomology class) set me up so well for this internship. (My supervisor) was really impressed with how small our school is but how much I knew about entomology,” she said. “I feel like the education we get here (at UT Martin) is so much more hands-on than what somebody at (a larger university) may get.”
Completing an outside internship is not a requirement to graduate from UT Martin’s plant and soil science program, but McLaughlin wanted to take advantage of every opportunity to prepare her for the rigors of graduate school.
“I wanted to get hands on field experience before I even get to graduate school because … (graduate school is) a lot of academics, but not a lot of field experience. But in a major like mine, you want both. You want to be that balanced student who has been in the field as well as in the lab or in the classroom. You can’t just always be in the classroom,” she said. “Disease and insects work well together; that’s why I want to get my PhD in those (areas). Just like with the insect vector– the insect isn’t what kills the corn. It’s the disease that the insect carries to the corn (that kills the crop).”
When asked about being a woman in a predominantly male industry, McLaughlin admitted her gender can often lead others to underestimate her abilities.
“I don’t think it is as taboo as it used to be to work in a male-dominated field. I’ve got women alongside me in my major and as advisers who excell in what we do in agriculture. We just have to show that we can work as hard as (our male counterparts). That’s all it takes,” she said.
She encourages other students, both male and female alike, to follow their own hearts when it comes to choosing a college major and a professional career. The biggest factor in success is passion, and when you find your calling, follow it and don’t let go.
(top) Autumn McLaughlin
(bottom) Autumn McLaughlin (right) and her mother, Jodie McLaughlin, both of Erwin, are pictured prior to May 5 commencement exercises.