From weeds to Washington: Penn State agronomy student advocates for change

Natalie McCollum
April 25, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State student Haleigh Summers wants to be a vehicle for change when it comes to her passion for sustainable agriculture.

In March, she had the opportunity to do just that by attending the annual Congressional Visits Day in Washington, D.C., an event organized by the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America and the Soil Science Society of America.

Summers, a master’s degree student in agronomy in the College of Agricultural Sciences, is one of this year’s 18 recipients of the American Society of Agronomy’s Future Leaders in Science Award. The award, which recognizes students’ interest and involvement in scientific advocacy, funds the trip for recipients to engage with policymakers about food, agriculture and natural resources funding.

“It was really helpful to think about how to communicate with those who may not be well versed in the science behind these policies,” Summers said. “I think it’s important that representatives think both about who they are representing and the science behind decisions so we’re not solely basing political actions on beliefs, but also on the science.”

On March 5, Summers and other attendees at the event met with members of Congress and their staffs and advocated for increased federal funding for agricultural research. These funds are distributed nationally through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, which is under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Summers with Congressional Aide

Haleigh Summers is shown with John Busovsky during Congressional Visits Day in Washington D.C. Busovsky is a staff member for U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, of Pennsylvania's 15th District.

IMAGE: Haleigh Summers

“It was good to know that the staffers we met were really knowledgeable on what we do and that representatives in office have people who know what is going on scientifically,” Summers said.

Summers’ interest in agriculture began when she was a child on her grandfather’s farm in her hometown of Urbana, Illinois, where she fondly remembers riding around with him on his tractor. Her passion for agriculture as a career didn’t begin until she was 14, when she spent a summer as a corn pollinator for Monsanto, an agrochemical and agriculture biotechnology corporation. This experience instilled in her a love for working outside.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in agronomy from Iowa State University, she came to Penn State to pursue graduate studies, saying her decision was based on the quality of the program and the chance to learn from other graduate students.

“There are other grad students who study nutrient loss, pollution and entomology, so I can learn about a lot of different things even though I’m only focusing on one aspect,” she said.

Summers concentrates on herbicide and weed research, specifically on how to control weeds using less herbicide. She likes that her research is practical and can help farmers directly, which has led her to work more closely with the Pennsylvania farming community through Penn State Extension.

“The extension program is huge, so I’ve been able to help out with a lot of events,” she said. “Recently, I helped with Agronomy Scout School. People come and learn how to scout their crops to identify insects, weeds and diseases they have in their fields and how to control them. I meet a lot of farmers that way.”

Summers has worked closely with Penn State Extension professionals such as Dwight Lingenfelter, extension associate in weed science, who has included her in many extension events to help advance her knowledge.

“One of the great things about Haleigh is that she works on many different things,” Lingenfelter said. “She has a diverse background and has learned more about agriculture and policy. She always puts herself out there and wants to be involved — and that is going to really serve her well.”

Lingenfelter also serves as Summers’ coach on the Penn State Weed Science Team. The team gives students interested in weed science the opportunity to collaborate with one another, learn from researchers from other universities and apply their knowledge by competing in the Collegiate Weed Science Contest each summer.

“Haleigh is driven and hungry to learn the latest weed science tactics and management recommendations,” he said. “When the information regarding the upcoming weed science contest was released, she immediately asked if she could start studying because she was eager to get a head start.”

Summers hopes to use her background to work in science policy. While she praises the work of organizations such as Penn State Extension to help farmers minimize their impact on the environment, she believes that policies are needed for significant change.

“I like knowing that I can make a difference with what I’m doing,” she said. “With agriculture, we’re feeding the world.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 25, 2019