Seeds of Knowledge: One student’s journey into agricultural science and the AAGB Conference

McKenzie Smith, your typical 12th-grade student, faces the pivotal decision of where to continue her education. As she navigates her final year at Dothan High School, the choice of where to go next looms large. A big part of her decision is her newfound passion for the agriculture business. “There are a lot of aspects I didn’t think of initially,” McKenzie said when discussing the intricacies of the business deals and economics within the realm of agriculture.

McKenzie’s interest in agriculture science can be traced back to Mrs. Brewer’s AP biology class last school year. Here, McKenzie and her classmates participated in the WIREGRASS Peanut Project, a first-of-its-kind research and educational pursuit aiming to ease students into the realm of peanut biology. The project is facilitated by HudsonAlpha Wiregrass, HudsonAlpha Faculty Investigator Josh Clevenger, PhD, and members of the HudsonAlpha Educational Outreach team. 

Reflecting on the process, McKenzie said that while the project provided insights into the scientific process and background of peanut planting, she felt there was more to uncover. “There is more that goes into it than science,” McKenzie said, hinting at a broader scope of her newfound appreciation for the complexities of agriculture.

That is why when she won a competition that granted her the opportunity to attend the Advances in Arachis through Genomics and Biotechnology conference at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, McKenzie seized the chance with enthusiasm. “I was really, really excited,” she said.

The competition itself was no walk in the park. Those who had engaged in the WIREGRASS Peanut Project were pitted against each other in an essay competition. The task was to explain their experience with the project, dive into how genomics could address community challenges, and express how the conference could contribute to their ongoing education.

“The WIREGRASS Peanut Project opened my eyes to how many jobs there are in the field of agriculture where you’re not necessarily in the lab or field,” McKenzie said. “HudsonAlpha showed me that there are a lot of people that go into what we grow every day who aren’t in the lab.”

When McKenzie learned she won the competition, she was elated. “I was kind of shell-shocked at first because it was all happening so fast. But I was really thrilled because I applied, not thinking I would get it. I was just like, ‘I would like to go,’ but that does not mean that they’re going to pick me. So when they did, it was super exciting.”

McKenzie’s response really captured the intent of the Peanut Project,” said Madelene Loftin, HudsonAlpha Educational Outreach Director of Educator Professional Learning. Madelene and her colleagues, including Jennifer Hutchison, HudsonAlpha’s Educational Outreach team leader on the WIREGRASS Peanut Project, selected McKenzie as the winner of the competition, giving her access to the AAGB conference. 

“It was a treat to be able to share the news with [Keely and McKenzie’s mom] and hear the pride in their voices as they told me how McKenzie had hoped she’d be selected,” Madelene added. “McKenzie was incredibly excited. Then I was able to tell her that not only would she be attending, but her teacher, Keely Brewer, would be sponsored as well.”

The three-day research conference included discussions and talks about the latest research in peanut cultivation as leaders in the industry, universities and research exchanged ideas and networked. AAGB was led by HudsonAlpha Faculty Investigator Josh Clevenger, PhD, who also created and helped lead the WIREGRASS Peanut Project. 

“Having a student from the Wiregrass area who participated in the WIREGRASS Peanut Project attend AAGB was full circle,” Dr. Clevenger said. “The goal of the conference was to engage with industry leaders and researchers and to inspire students to continue on the course of peanut research.”

“For a student, we thought this would be a rare glimpse into the world of science, allowing them to learn about research, but also see the human side of the researchers as they tackle big-picture problems,” Madelene said.

As for the students attending, the conference shed light on parts of the peanut research process you may not get in the classroom or in the lab. “The first night of the conference was definitely a big eye-opener for me,” McKenzie said. “I talked to everyone and got to see the big figures for the research that is going on. I feel like I wouldn’t have known about all the opportunities I could have if I had not come to the conference.”

Not only did McKenzie learn about processes outside of the lab, she also was asked to speak to the conference attendees with her teacher, Keely Brewer, to explain the WIREGRASS Peanut Project and how the first-of-its-kind program is faring in the Wiregrass area. You can learn more about the WIREGRASS Peanut Project on Season 4, Episode 6 of Tiny Expeditions: Peanuts for the future: how students are collaborating to improve the legume we love.

“Coming [to AAGB] definitely helped me solidify the path that I want to go down in college,” McKenzie said. “I was between going on a research path and going into a social science path. After being here and learning about each path, it solidified the fact that I want to help make decisions based on what is going on in the labs, but not doing it myself.”

When asked about advice she would give to future students engaging in the WIREGRASS Peanut Project, McKenzie said to keep an open mind. “I definitely think you have to keep an open mind when talking about genomics and science. There are so many ways that it can be applied and ways it can help,” McKenzie said. “It can get confusing, but as long as you stick it out, you can be good at it and understand it a lot more.”