A Degree Above

By Aimee Nielson
Photography by Stephen Patton

Megan Culler Freeman: "I'd like to lead a laboratory team interested in the cell biology of emerging viral pathogens and to work with kids who have infectious diseases."

Arguably one of the toughest undergraduate biological sciences programs on campus, the Agricultural Biotechnology Program consistently produces some of the most successful graduates around. Students who complete the program go on to become physicians, scientists, and even entrepreneurs.

“I liken the program to the Olympics,” said Michael Goodin, program mentor and associate professor in plant pathology in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. “The students have to be very committed to doing what it takes to be successful. For that reason, the program attracts people who have that drive and really want to be academic Olympians. That said, the driving force of the program lies in the remarkable faculty and staff who are ultra-committed to the success of our students.”

Faculty mentors and advisors frequently go far beyond the call of duty to enhance both the academic and personal welfare of our students.

“The faculty who founded the program were true visionaries of education, and those who maintain it are exceptionally dedicated to the program,” Goodin said.

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Diverse Career Paths

Students come to ag biotech from diverse areas of study, from fine arts to the more predictable pre-med paths. Currently 160 students are making their way through the program. That number is up from just 130 three years ago. Goodin believes the growth is a result of students embracing the fact that ag biotech can prepare them for any career of their choosing.

Megan Culler Freeman is a Lexington native who graduated from the Math, Science, and Technology Center at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School before coming to UK to study ag biotechnology. She graduated from UK in 2008 and is now working toward MD and PhD degrees at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

“I’m not sure I would have even known about my career path, if it weren’t for ag biotech,” she said. “I knew from the beginning that I wanted a career in research or in medicine, but it was a combination of my adviser suggesting this track and working with an MD/PhD student in my research lab (at UK) that really solidified my choice. I worked in that lab for three years and genuinely loved it.”

Megan wants to study infectious diseases that affect children.

“My mentors in ag biotech helped me realize I really wanted to be able to shape the science of medicine in addition to treating patients, making the physician-scientist track perfect for me,” she said. “The strong biological science background helped me prepare for the Medical College Admission Test and for medical school, and the research emphasis has helped give me the ability to ask good scientific questions.”

After Freeman finishes up her PhD in the next year or so, she’ll go back to medical school to complete the remaining two years there. Then, she will do a residency and a fellowship to specialize.

“This should allow me to have a career that is both clinical and research oriented,” she said. “Ultimately, I’d like to lead a laboratory team interested in the cell biology of emerging viral pathogens and to work with kids who have infectious diseases.”

Goodin says the structure of the College’s ag biotechnology program more closely resembles a graduate course of study and is very intense, but definitely prepares students for the rigorous demands of any future career.

“The program provides exceptional opportunities for experiential learning. I believe a real strength is that we can tailor design curricula to the student’s specific career aspirations,” he said. “We craft the degree and pair them up with a mentor who can help them achieve their goals.”

Kyle McKinney: "The course work, lab work, and most importantly, the independent research project gave me skills, a work ethic, and the drive to begin my Alltech career.”

Novel Approaches

Ag biotech led Kyle McKinney to a career at Alltech shortly after he graduated from UK in 2003. When he was a freshman, he filled out a questionnaire about his career goals; he wrote that he wanted to join a biotech company and help make a difference using novel approaches. It seems he is well on his way to reaching his goal.

“Thinking back to 2003, I had an opportunity to join a global leader in animal health and nutrition using novel science technologies 15 miles from the UK campus,” he said. “The course work, lab work, and most importantly, the independent research project gave me skills, a work ethic, and the drive to begin my Alltech career.”

Over the course of his career at Alltech, he has earned a master’s degree and is currently working toward completing his doctorate.

“The ag biotech program also required a high level of independence with a research project,” he said. “I could not have gained that experience from a textbook or a classroom. The project provided opportunities for me to explore a research area of my interest and also to develop data or information for further studies. The combination of courses and the lab research prepared me for any direction I could have chosen after graduation.”

Lesley Mann Lynch: "The rigor of the program prepared me to tackle any professional pursuit."

In the Broadest Sense

While most career paths ag biotech graduates take are predictable and have evidence of a clear relationship to the student’s coursework, others take a different twist. A closer look, however, reveals the underlying ties.

Lesley Mann Lynch went through the ag biotech program and went on to complete a master’s degree in business at the University of Cambridge in England. She also started a compost business, Charlie’s Compost, with her father Charlie Mann in Calhoun, Ky. and is now in culinary school in Texas.

Lesley understands how, on the surface, none of her choices really seem to fit together and may even look a bit scattered to some, but she’s found a way to intertwine them all.

She said Charlie’s Compost has been in her father’s mind for more than a decade. It finally became reality a few years ago. Charlie’s Compost is a natural fertilizer and soil amendment made on their poultry farm.

They recycle the manure from their chicks with other locally-sourced organic matter. After eight to 10 weeks, naturally occurring beneficial microbes transform the natural products into a complex mix of plant-available nutrients that build up in the soil for long-term performance.

“It wasn’t until the last few years that starting the venture seemed feasible, given market conditions and availability of help,” she said. “Charlie and I have combined our strong suits—his are his incredible people skills, local knowledge, and vision for the company, and mine are the ability to handle the scientific issues and organizational responsibilities to get this business off the ground. We have been growing and developing slowly—we like to say organically—but we have made significant progress. Our compost product is currently registered and sold in 17 states and on Amazon.com. More than anything, we are proud of the product that goes out the door.”

Lesley said her strong natural science training has been crucial to the development and production of their products.

“Biochemistry, microbiology, and soil biology all play a role,” she said. “I’m constantly drawing on concepts I learned in my soil science class and every basic science class I have taken. Whether it is designing an experiment to test effectiveness, reading a soil biology lab report, or talking with a potential customer about their specific soil needs, I am falling back on my science training all the time.”

“Some people might say that I do not use my ag biotech degree because I am not working in the industry,” she said. “However, I think this is the opposite of the truth. The rigor of the program prepared me to tackle any professional pursuit. These general competencies and ability to use them in diverse settings are the ultimate take-aways from a college experience.”

As for culinary school, Lesley explained the connection she sees.

“(For me), there is a strong connection between the ag biotech program and culinary school—food,” she said. “I’m interested in every step of the food chain, from farming to cooking to sharing a meal as quality time to composting. The other underlying theme is science; you can be a nerd about anything, even cooking.”

Though students from every field of study are welcome, Goodin said the one criterion they have for incoming students is “do not judge a book by its cover.” He said the program can take students anywhere they want to go, and it’s not all about the academics.

“The ag biotechnology program is really about student success in the broadest sense.” Goodin said. “Two of our students were winners in the 2012 Alltech Young Scientist Competition, which is great. But when they stop by your office, brimming with pride, to thank you for helping them achieve goals they did not think they were capable of, the true importance of the ag biotech program becomes manifest.”