Soil science interest leads to R&D in plant pathology – Kyle Fabian (ETM)

Kyle performs a large scale Limus trial analysis for BASF.
Doing a large scale Limus trial analysis for BASF.

Things never seem to work out the way you plan them. My college experience has been no different. I switched majors twice, from pre-law, to environmental science, before finally ending up in environmental technology and management (ETM). Even in ETM, I thought I would work in solar or toxicology. My internship and experience with Dr. Rachel Cook and BASF, the chemical company, allowed me to explore new career options and interests, and I have since decided that plant pathology was right for me. My experience has taught me that you should always keep your mind open to other options.

Looking back on it, my path to plant pathology is quite convoluted. A friend of mine recently had a great experience working in a chemistry lab, and at the time, I had no lab experience. I emailed a few of my previous professors, one of whom was Professor David Crouse, who taught my Soil Science 200 class. He put me in touch with Dr. Cook, and I started work with her soon after in Williams Hall on main campus.

Dr. Cook was testing a product for BASF, an international chemical company renowned for its innovation, research and development. This product, Limus, is a great illustration of BASF’s R&D process. The company identified a need, in this case a product that could be added to fertilizer that inhibited ammonification, thus improving the efficiency of fertilizer. At the time, Dr. Cook and I were testing the product’s efficacy with different moisture content or soil type. I worked with Dr. Cook for two months, then was offered an internship at BASF’s Research Triangle Park location to continue my work on Limus and other research projects.

I was a summer intern with the FCC group, and my official title was Functional Crop Care Scientist. Essentially, I became a full member of their staff, and worked on all seven of the projects in my division. These projects involved anything from the continued work on Limus (large scale instead of lab scale) to studying different types of soil amendments.

Working in research and development in a private company is a different working experience. Everyone, even the interns, has their own projects in addition to the division projects. You learn the most about yourself on personal projects. I found that I occasionally struggled balancing personal and company projects, but in the end, I gained better time management skills. Many of these personal projects are cutting edge, which in essence means that we have no idea if they are going to pan out or not. Very few do. However, the ones that look promising graduate to division projects, and everyone works on them. It is rewarding to see a project you spearheaded go to this phase.

In my three months at BASF, I had two personal projects. The first was a literature review, or an analysis of a particular subject area by examining the scientific literature in that area. I completed my literature review on the past use of soil amendments. In addition, various types of soil may “react” differently to each type of amendment. Through this literature review, I examined types of amendments and indicated studies we may want to replicate for testing. Later, this research was used by my division.

The second project was a series of greenhouse gradient trials. The BASF location at Research Triangle Park has 8 greenhouses. Four of them are older, and four of them were installed in 2012. My project was to find ways to examine the gradients in the older greenhouses, and detail these gradients to my co-workers and superiors. A gradient is a change in a property (temperature, wind speed, humidity, evaporation, and light, in this case) over a space. To do this, I implemented a grid pattern over the four older greenhouses, and tested a point in each grid twice daily for several weeks. I made several recommendations to improve trial accuracy in a few specific parts of the greenhouses where the effects of gradients were more pronounced.

I would encourage others to explore more than one career path. From a young age, we are expected to know what we want to do with our lives. However, sometimes what you thought you would do just does not work out, or you may not know that you would love a specific job.

I think that one of the most important lessons I learned through the entire experience is that steep learning curves can be intimidating, but if you work at it you can achieve anything. While challenging, after a few months working with soil and soil compounds in lab and greenhouse spaces, I grew to understand and enjoy the work to a much higher degree. Research and development of new products was a rewarding experience for me, and it may be worth your while to check out opportunities in the R&D field!