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Graduate Student Spotlights

Grad Student Profile: Riley Lawson

Riley Lawson College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Graduate Student and Fulbright Scholar

Earlier this year the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs named NC State among 12 colleges and universities with the highest number of students, faculty and administrators selected for both the Fulbright U.S. Student and Fulbright U.S Scholar Programs. The Fulbright U.S. Scholar program offers teaching and research awards to U.S. citizens in more than 130 countries, and we had a chance to sit down with College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Fulbright Scholar Riley Lawson to talk about her graduate education experience and the opportunity to conduct research in France.

Tell us about your journey to graduate school and what led you to NC State.
When I was looking at graduate schools during my senior year of undergrad, I knew I wanted to change course from my bachelor’s degree major of aerospace engineering and study something new. My undergraduate mentor at the University of Alabama, Dr. Rob Morgan, encouraged me to look into Biological and Agricultural Engineering. When I began to research the discipline, I realized that it was a perfect way to combine my skill set of mechanical design with my passion for food equity and environmental sustainability. NC State’s BAE Graduate program is consistently ranked in the top 5 nationally, and I was excited to be closer to my parents for my next round of schooling. I then visited Raleigh for our recruitment weekend, and I was sold!

Tell us about your research.
My research focuses on developing soil biosensors to accurately determine soil nutrient concentrations. The standard practice for sampling soil often takes weeks to receive results, so we are creating a soil sensor that can be implemented in the crop field and provide real-time readouts of soil nutrients, particularly nitrogen. Nitrogen, or nitrate as it is most often found in the soil, is crucial to plant growth. Excessive nitrate in the soil can then be washed away and is damaging the surrounding ecosystem. If we can develop a platform that shows farmers exactly where in the field they need to apply fertilizer and in what quantity, we can not only improve their bottom-line, but also directly benefit the environment.

Tell us about your U.S. Fulbright opportunity.

Next academic year, I will conduct a research project in Rennes, France as part of the U.S. Fulbright grant program. During my time there I will study a rapeseed crop variant’s response to fluctuations in soil nitrogen levels and be able to better inform my sensor development when I return.

How has NC State and the Graduate School helped you with your professional development?
NC State offers many opportunities for professional development. I participate in both the Writing and Teaching Certificates offered by The Graduate School. I also have made my own opportunities by serving as my department’s Graduate Student Association President for the past two years.

The Executive Board and I have planned several seminars, including highlighting post-masters and -doctoral opportunities, listening to the experiences of women in academia, and learning how to properly submit one’s thesis or dissertation through the ETD portal. My department also sends graduate students to the annual meeting of our professional society, which I have attended thrice and at which I made many connections.

What advice do you have for new or current graduate students?
Transitioning from undergraduate to graduate studies is challenging. You have to reframe your mind to not only be a student but also a working researcher. Spending adequate time being creative and thinking of solutions to various roadblocks is crucial but prioritizing your well-being with work-life balance is the only way to get through. If you choose a research project that you are wholly invested in, it will make the work all the easier.

What does the future have in store for Riley?
After graduation I would love to be a professor! If I can find the right position at the right university, it would be a dream come true to teach and encourage the next generation while having the flexibility to continue researching game-changing innovations.

Tell us a fun fact about yourself.
From eighth grade through college, I wanted to be an astronaut. I would still go into space in a heartbeat!

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