I was born and raised in Southern Oregon (Central Point, OR). I grew up with a family that spent a lot of time outdoors, and almost always around water. White water rafting, crabbing trips, skiing, surf lessons, and sailing was how I spent most weekends and summers. Not much has changed. I have always been a tinkerer and love being creative, solving problems and building. My up bringing, laced with unintentional physics lessons, paired with a love for math and science led me to pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering at Oregon State University.
During undergrad, my path of study provided me with many unique and exciting opportunities. My favorite of which was studying abroad at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. This was such an incredible experience that widened my world view and got me passionate about international travel. I then got involved in the OSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders, and in my last year of undergrad I traveled to rural Cambodia on an assessment trip to plan out the design for a water distribution and filtration system for a small village. It was a powerful and transformative experience, as I was able to see the complexity and challenges of water resource issues globally. We learned a lot from the community and local NGOs about project management, engineering in low-resource environments, and the challenges associated with regulating a common-pool resource like water. Ultimately, it was during this experience that I realized I wanted to be in a profession where I could contribute to solving global environmental problems, which led to my M.S. in Water Resource Engineering with a research focus on precision agriculture from the University of Idaho.
Now, as an FRA in the Nackley Lab working on sensor-controlled irrigation techniques, I am lucky to have found a niche career path that combines engineering and environmentalism. I investigate and develop automatic irrigation systems that use real-time feedback from plants, soil or weather (or a combination thereof) to control irrigation and conserve resources. My favorite thing about working in agricultural research and extension is the great potential for impact. At the extension level, we are at the very important nexus of academic research and on-farm adoption. Working closely with growers to develop pertinent research questions, and having growers anticipate our experimental results gives our work tangible purpose and keeps things exciting.
Melissa is Greek for “honey bee”, but I’m pretty sure my parents hadn’t given me the name expecting I’d take it quite so literally. Though when I’m hand-pollinating my corn in the summer to make sure I get well-fertilized, full cobs I thoroughly enjoy the irony. Even as a kid, one of my favorite hobbies was flipping over paving stones to capture worms and “rolly pollies” and other small insects in the unused canning jars in the garage… much to the horror of my parents when canning season came back around. Though I don’t think I was the only kid doing things like that, I have noticed that the Entomology community isn’t as big as it would be if all the kids grew up to become insect specialists.
Becoming an entomologist wasn’t exactly the dream I had growing up, either, and in all honesty, I didn’t even know it was a career path until college. In fact, I’d started university in the music program with a scholarship for Vocal Performance but not really knowing what I wanted for myself as a career. The biggest mistake of that career was testing into General Biology for Majors, because in my first term of classes I knew Biology was where I belonged. I finished my first year at college taking the minimum required credits to maintain my scholarship while doubling down on my biology, chemistry, and math courses. I began my second year as a biology major.
With my limited exposure to careers in science, I began exploring specialties through the courses I took at Oregon State University during my undergrad years. I took an Aquatic Entomology class that finally lit up all the ideas and passion that I felt for science, and it didn’t take long for me to decide that insects and ecology were going to be my path. I became fascinated with the interaction between insects and their environments, the way they could be used as living indicators, and tracked to understand weather patterns and the ecologies of other organisms.
From there, my desire to understand the way insects behave in response to changes in the environment evolved and I began to examine insects in changing landscapes of the Pacific Northwest: insect community aggregation in timber lands, pollinators in degraded and then restored landscapes, and channeled river systems in agricultural lands.
Working in Nursery production is very similar. In every ecosystem, the part of this job I enjoy the most is the new mystery and the strange way insects have adapted to life with humans in our tiny corner of the world. There are more questions than answers, and insects find a way to surprise and amaze me in every project – sometimes not in the best of ways, like when they disappear the same year a major grant is funded – but always in ways that make my job interesting and compelling. I plan to always be found crawling through the foliage, shaking leaves and scratching the soil, searching for tiny answers.
I was born in the small farming village of Los Angeles. I lived in the city doing office type jobs until I turned 25 and read a book about the soil microbial community; and everything changed. This book, ’Teaming with Microbes’ by Jeff Lowenfels, is responsible for my complete career change. It was written so the first half taught the science behind soil and plant interactions while the second half explained how to use this knowledge in a home garden.
At the time I lived in a 3rd story apartment building with a balcony that, in no time, was overflowing with vegetable plants and bubbling buckets of compost tea. The success of the garden was directly related to my new-found understanding of soil. I moved out of California and went back to school at the age of 30 to follow my new found passion. My first class was Soil 101 at the local community college in Clackamas. Learning about the “why” behind life science fascinated me. I quickly finished a two year degree and transferred to Oregon State University.
Majoring in Crop and Soil Science while working in a soil microbiology lab took up all my time; when I wasn’t on my daily commute of 160 miles or staying up all night with two young daughters who didn’t like to sleep. After completing my bachelor’s degree, I joined the Dragila Lab and began working on my master’s degree in Soil Physics. I loved doing research and worked on a large, multi-department thesis project studying the effectiveness of soil solarization in Pacific Northwest nurseries. Soil Solarization required a tilled row of soil to be tightly wrapped in clear plastic sheeting. The clear plastic would use the greenhouse effect to super heat the soil, killing soil pathogens and weed seeds. During the three year project, I installed over 600 soil sensors for monitoring soil moisture and temperature movement under the plastic treatments, while other departments assessed the mortality to the weeds and pathogens. At the end of my thesis work, I had produced a model for predicting weed seed mortality from solarization.
Upon completion of grad school, I went into extension where my passion for science communication was used in combination with my knowledge of technology in horticulture. I have been working for OSU at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center since 2019. In the Nackley Lab as a Faculty Research Assistant I set up experiments that explore greenhouse and nursery production. Current projects include: flying UAV’s with near red spectrum cameras to look for plant stress from the sky, VWC sensor base irrigation of shade trees and lysimeter controlled irrigation for indoor hemp production. I am also part of OSU’s Intelligent Spray Project where an air-blast sprayer that has been retrofitted with a LiDAR system is evaluated for efficacy and pesticide savings in the nursery industry. My favorite part of doing research is setting up a new experiment in a way that will hopefully show differences in plant growth based on different treatments. The challenge of working with Mother Nature while manipulating the factors of plant growth fascinates me, especially when there are visual growth differences attributable to the experiment’s set up. These days I can be found either fiddling with technology, setting up overly complicated irrigation systems or at a podium giving talks about what information has been gained from the results of my trials. Where ever you do find me, you can be sure I am on a passionate course for understanding the whys behind growing plants.