Master of Science in agronomy students grow their stories, program online

Friday, May 19, 2017

Kathryn Schindler | Agronomy and Horticulture Distance Education Administrative Support Associate


Hope Blackburn (from left), Leslie Gilles and Matt Duncan

People would expect things to grow in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture. While not always dealing with plant matter, the department’s online Master of Science program is growing in size, scope and stories.

With more than 50 online Master of Science students, 10 have graduated since last August. Their projects and stories have been as unique as their personalities, interests and geographic locations.

Projects have ranged from corn hybrid management trials in Texas, to inoculating corn for disease resistance in the Southeast United States, to creating a plant science high school lesson plan for the State of Utah.

The department offers two tracks for its agronomy master’s degree. Option I is a traditional thesis research track while Option II is a professional project track.

Most students chose the project because it fits their professional goals, according to Leah Sandall, Distance Education coordinator for the department. She added that the thesis option is still available if the student has an approved on-site supervisor.

“Option II in agronomy does not have to focus on field research; it can be a resource that can be used in Extension or education,” Sandall said. Students often re-purpose their projects for Extension or company publications.

Three May graduates said they selected University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s online Agronomy and Horticulture master’s degree due to its good reputation among the seed companies and based on recommendations from colleagues and supervisors. Some companies even offer tuition reimbursement as part of their benefit packages.

Leslie Gilles, from Kress, Texas, said her supervisor favored the University of Nebraska-Lincoln since he received his Ph.D. there. She also knew her employer, DuPont Pioneer, would support her efforts for a more advanced degree.

“The courses that I had to take looked very interesting and since I was working at Pioneer Hi-Bred in the breeding program (with) yield-trial testing under stress, I decided to pursue a (specialization) in Crop Physiology and Production,” Gilles said.

Hope Blackburn, from Lehi, Utah, was also able to combine her interests and her career as a high school agriculture teacher into a Plant Science curriculum to distribute to all Agriculture teachers in Utah.

“Prior to completing my project, I learned that agriculture teachers across the state of Utah did not feel comfortable teaching an advanced plant science course because of the genetics and biotechnology units within the curriculum,” Blackburn said. “For my project, I designed classroom-ready curriculum for the genetic and biotechnology units within the course.”

Matthew Duncan from Cairo, Ga., developed a project of inoculating corn with Fusarium verticillioides (a fungus) using three different inoculation methods.

“The goal of the experiment was to determine if inoculation would increase disease pressure in disease screening nurseries in Georgia and North Carolina,” Duncan explained.

Duncan said he decided to pursue his degree at Nebraska because of its great reputation and because other colleagues were pursuing their degrees here. 

All three graduates agreed that the best benefits for taking online courses are the ability to keep working and living within their own communities while giving a boost to their careers.

“The online program allowed me to continue in school while working full time,” Duncan said.

“I was able to continue my work as an agriculture teacher throughout the entire program, even with the traveling that I am required to do,” Blackburn said. “I have always had an interest in genetics. The opportunity to specialize in plant breeding was very appealing to me. The program was perfect for my busy schedule.”

The degree will also help these new graduates advance in their careers.

“One of my goals as an educator is to encourage students to be life-long learners,” Blackburn said. “I felt that I should also further my education. The knowledge I acquired from this degree will help as I teach students plant science topics as I now have a better understanding of the agronomy & plant breeding industries.”

“This degree will help immensely with my career path,” Duncan said. “Since I work in research and development, education is highly valued. A master’s degree is desired for higher positions, and will allow me more upward mobility within my company. The knowledge I’ve gained has also helped me fine-tune the specific area of plant breeding I want to go in to.”

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