When students enroll in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, they may be only one step away from finding their passion.
Undergraduate students within the department may find themselves roaming the campus and attending classes in the traditional classroom setting. However, it is just as likely they could be learning in research fields and golf courses around the state, nation and even abroad through the department’s extensive network of student job opportunities.
“Those students have the opportunity to broaden their horizons and explore firsthand the science that underlies agriculture through the department’s many student worker employment or formalized internship program opportunities,” said Wayne Smith, Ph.D., associate department head – instruction and graduate program coordinator in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences.
Grace Bodine’s journey to find her way in soil and crop sciences
Grace Bodine ’22, a plant and environmental soil science major, thought she wanted to be an environmental scientist or biologist, but she was unsure. At first, she started her higher education in Japan, believing she wanted to do something international and abroad.
“Although the program didn’t work out, my love for agriculture started to grow. I quickly decided I wanted to be involved in soil or crop science, so I enrolled at Texas A&M,” Bodine said. “In the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, you decide whether you want to concentrate on soils or crops. I thought I wanted to do soils, but I also wanted to give crops a chance. Luckily, I had the opportunity to work and participate in different labs and career paths, which allowed me to see what I liked and where I fit.”
Bodine worked in three different labs within the department during her undergrad years – the first was with Steve Hague, Ph.D., in the Cotton Breeding Lab, helping maintain the research fields. Her second student job was in the Soil Characterization Lab with lab manager Donna Prochaska and Julie Howe, Ph.D., where she helped prep soil samples sent in for analysis by outside sources. Her final student worker job was in the Ecology of Soil Carbon Lab under Peyton Smith, Ph.D., where she not only was a student worker but got the opportunity to be an undergraduate research assistant and helped study the impact of cover crops and tillage on soil wet aggregate stability.
In addition to her work-study, Bodine completed an internship in the summer of 2021 with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, as a Soil Conservationist Pathways intern. She communicated with producers and private landowners about being involved and participating in voluntary conservation programs on their land.
Steppingstones to a career
Bodine credits both her internship and her time working in the Ecology of Soil Carbon Lab with helping her find her path within soil and crop sciences after graduation.
She graduated in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in plant and environmental soil science. She is now working on her master’s degree at the University of Maryland with a concentration in soil and watershed science.
“The work opportunities that I had while studying at the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences helped guide my decisions,” she said. “In the summer of 2021, when I did my internship, my goal was to find out how I liked one of the major job pathways students take coming from soil science programs. Although they had a great internship, I realized I wanted to keep doing research like I was doing in the lab. The combination of the experience and then presenting my research through a mini-thesis showed me I was itching for something more, so I decided to go to grad school.
“I’m having similar thoughts again in my master’s program – do I commit to a doctorate, or do I go work somewhere for several years and then come back. I’m still figuring that out for myself, but likely will go for a doctorate in soil science.”
Different jobs serve different purposes
“Being a student worker within the department and holding an internship in the field made me feel like more than just a student. You don’t just go to class and then go home. Having the job helped me make the connection on why I was going to school, and it connected me to the professors and all the other things they were doing outside the classroom. It opened the door to so many opportunities I would not have had otherwise.”
Bodine said she took to heart advice from Hague when he was her professor: “The best thing you can do as a student is to go to class. The worst thing you can do as a student is only go to class.”
She said there are always more job opportunities available than there are students to fill the jobs. She advised incoming students to start looking for opportunities to get into labs or jobs early so they can test out different career paths.
Bodine’s activities led her earn the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Dean’s Outstanding Achievement Awards for Undergraduate Student Research, the J. Fielding Reed Scholarship from the American Society of Agronomy, and she was selected as a Golden Opportunities Scholar.
In addition, she suggested getting involved in student associations. In addition to her undergraduate research and student worker activities in various labs, Bodine served as an ambassador for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and as the president of the Agronomy Society.
“Get involved. Student worker jobs tend to be very flexible with your classes and allow you to build relationships. Your advisers can provide important recommendations as you move into grad school or a job. The other cool thing in labs on campus or related to your career field – you can make connections between the coursework and the real world. When studying, you might wonder, ‘Is this really that important?’ The job helps add meaning and reality and helps you understand that, yes, it is that important.”
Diverse opportunities for students within soil and crop sciences
Smith, who is also a professor and longtime cotton breeder, said many students come from diverse backgrounds, including both rural and urban areas. Therefore, the department’s wide variety of jobs and internships offer them an opportunity to learn about hands-on agriculture, regardless of their upbringing, to better understand the science behind agriculture.
The department has something for most students, he said, whether their interest lies with soil chemistry and physics, plant genomics and breeding, bioenergy advances and food science, or even exploring the innovative tools used today in agriculture, like drones and high-throughput phenotyping.
“We feel these opportunities position undergrad students to be competitive in the marketplace as well as provide them with background and experience that could lead them to post-graduate or graduate work to put them into careers that require advanced degrees,” he said.
“These jobs and internships are primarily about gaining and growing through the experience. The students get the opportunity to go to a different location, experience different cultures and explore the big, diverse business of agriculture.”