Ag disruptors: New Illinois major is for you
Sarah Hind, left, works with student in laboratory
Sarah Hind, left, works with student in laboratory
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August 17, 2021
 

URBANA, Ill. – When he thinks about where he’ll be in five to 10 years, recent University of Illinois graduate Austin Parish sees himself disrupting the agriculture industry. In a good way.

Right now, our only limitation in ag is how big we can think. I'm excited to be working alongside startups to bring more data and technology than ever to disrupt the plant biotechnology space,” he says.

Parish’s work at the Illinois AgTech Accelerator within Research Park at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is a natural fit for the Department of Crop Sciences graduate, who chose a concentration in plant biotechnology. During the program, he dove deep into plant breeding and genetics, genomics, molecular biology, plant physiology, bioinformatics, and statistical analysis techniques in support of plant improvement.

Starting this fall, plant biotechnology will be a standalone major in the department. Learn more and enroll now.

“We are now offering plant biotechnology as a major for a couple of reasons,” says Adam Davis, professor and department head. “First, as we aim to feed a growing population on the same land base, plant improvement through biotechnological approaches is a key route to improving crop productivity. Our faculty are doing very innovative work in this space, and we want to train the next generation of plant biotechnologists to address the growing need for experts in this area.

“Second, plant biotechnology has been one of our most popular undergraduate concentrations for years. We wanted to make this exciting field more visible to a broader population of incoming students, and elevating it to major status helps with this.”

A key feature of the major is hands-on learning. Students are required to complete an internship or research project, but that’s not the only time they get in the lab.

“The courses aren’t just lectures. You’re getting real experience that is applicable to industry or academia, whichever you choose,” Parish says. “Right at the end of freshman year, I had a field manager take a chance on me for a research position. It was hard work that summer, but it got me the opportunity to do lab work during the school year. It was an absolutely fantastic learning experience and my first time ever pipetting in a research lab.”

Davis says first-year research experience isn’t unusual for undergrads in crop sciences majors, including plant biotechnology. Faculty teach research techniques early and introduce students to faculty research groups throughout the department. Many of them, as in Parish’s experience, take on undergraduate research assistants.

That real-world experience, along with a curriculum rooted in the latest science, sets up plant biotechnology graduates for careers in industry, academia, or government agencies.

“There is growing demand for plant scientists who can help solve problems such as improving the ability of plants to protect themselves from pests and pathogens, and increasing the efficiency of plant resource use (water, nutrients, sunlight) to balance productivity with environmental sustainability,” Davis says.

Sarah Hind, assistant professor in the department and co-creator of the new major, emphasizes just how promising the job market is for plant biotechnology graduates.

“According to recent reports, there are more than 1.74 million bioscience-related jobs in the U.S., representing an increase of almost 19% since 2001. More than 85,000 of these jobs are located here in Illinois,” she says. “And according to the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Outlook Handbook, employment opportunities in life science occupations are projected to grow 7% during the next decade.”

Parish says faculty truly invest in helping students succeed.

“The professors really want to see all crop sciences students do well and they are willing to go out of their way for you.”

That goes for all students.

According to Hind, the plant biotech concentration recruited a greater proportion of women and non-Caucasian students than other concentrations in the department. She expects that trend to continue in the new major, and says the department is committed to being a welcoming and inclusive space for everyone who wants to shake up the future of ag.

To learn more and schedule a visit, contact Erika Olivares at ugrad@cropsciences.illinois.edu or 217-333-4256.