Agrible™ All-Stars: Amy Betzelberger

1. Where are you from/where did you grow up?

I grew up in central Illinois on a Sesquicentennial family farm. My brother and I had one or two of just about every animal as pets and 4-H projects. My dad and his dad owned the cropland around our farm, which they yield-shared with the same tenant farmers for generations. They both worked in crop insurance and my dad, Bob Betzelberger, has recently started using his considerable agri-business experience to start a business as a farm realtor, to my knowledge, he’s the first realtor specializing in only agricultural real estate in our area.

2. Where did you go to college / what did you study? 

I got my bachelor’s degree in Biology at Illinois State University, and my PhD in Plant Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Most of my research has been on how commodity soybeans and other crops are harmed by air pollution (Check out SoyFACE online - It's so COOL!). During my bachelor’s I did a semester living and traveling in England and Western Europe, and during my PhD I did a growing season of wheat research and travel in Australia and Tasmania. After finishing my PhD, I did a post-doctoral position at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where I did experimental research on how acacia trees (the lonely, thorny ones in savanna grasslands under which lions nap on National Geographic documentaries) are affected by air pollution, and how that is affecting whole landscapes (Spoiler alert: lots of thorns!)

3.  What is your title at Agrible™ and what do you do?

My title at Agrible™ is Plant Biologist / Science Liaison. I like it because I think it reflects how many different roles we all take on at Agrible™. I bring a lot of my plant biology experience with me, along with a very scientific way of exploring the world.

But what I actually do changes a lot from day to day! A lot of my time is spent doing background research - someone in the company has a question about some piece of our product they're working on, for example, so I spend a couple of days just learning everything I can about how and why that works the way it does, and then I can come back to them and explain just the salient points in a way that makes sense to them.

Sometimes it backfires on me, though - one of the first projects I worked on was just, "Amy, find out everything you can about peanuts." I spent two days learning about how peanuts mature, what kind of weather they like and why they like it, all of the types of peanuts and all of the places they're grown in the world... Two days of research, but it took me a week of cooking up new recipes every night to staunch the craving for peanuts it gave me! (I DO now have killer recipes for West African Peanut Stew, Spicy Peanut Sauce, and Peanut Butter Brownies, though, so maybe it was worth it!?)

4. What are you working on at Agrible™?

The most exciting thing I’ve been researching lately is BEES! Biologists are always looking at the world as a web of connections – and plants and their pollinators are one of the most important! I’ve worked very little with insects or insect-pollinated plants in my career, although I love the annual Insect Fear Film Festival (Coming to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this February!) and I’ve spent my fair share of time at the University of Illinois Pollinatarium (and yes – I do have some killer honey recipes!). For me, the most exciting part about researching bees for Agrible is not just learning about the “how”s and “why”s of bee-havior, but knowing that every piece of information I learn is going to directly help bees and their farmer neighbors!

5. What inspired you to become involved in agriculture?

I grew up on a farm in an agricultural area and both of my parents are from Illinois farming families, so it was totally natural for me to become involved in agriculture - but being from independent-minded farmer stock, I had to come to it my own way! I knew I loved plants and animals, which is why I did my bachelor’s degree in Biology, and then I just kept following my interests, answering one interesting question after another, all the way around the world - and back - always with the underlying thread of how plants and people work together on this crazy, wonderful emerald planet.

6. What is your favorite part about working at Agrible™?

I love the way everyone at Agrible™ works together. Everyone is so eager to figure things out and make things that work beautifully because the science behind them is sound. I love that I get to come at these big, beautiful problems from my inquisitive, scientific point of view, and that I still get to go home for family reunions and sit down with my uncles, who are all farmers and have completely different perspectives. I love to have these great, practical conversations about agriculture and how the world works from the ground up - literally!

7. What do you like to do in your free time?

I love being outside and exploring the world, whether it’s in a book, on a horse, on a bicycle, on a road trip, or on my own two feet! I really enjoy baking delicious, delicious desserts, and working with plants – right now I’m actually really excited because this month I am starting the Master Gardener training program with the Champaign County Extension office! The Master Gardener program is associated with the Extension program that land grant universities (i.e. UIUC) run across the whole US. Among other things, Master Gardeners distribute horticultural information to individuals and groups in local communities, and develop and enhance community programs related to horticulture - like the Horticulture Hotline, and a number of very cool public gardens around town. I am really looking forward to making lots of new local connections and learning all about our local climate and community and how growing plants here differs from the other corners of the world. I’m most excited by the possibility that, by the end of class, I will finally be able to answer the question I get at every party, after telling someone I'm a plant biologist: “What's wrong with my roses?!”

Keep up with the Modern Prairie Woman blog for a weekly column from “Dr. B - The Master Gardener In-Training!” I’ll be bringing you weekly seasonal information on what I’m learning, what’s happening in your gardens and fields, and how it all works (and maybe a recipe or two if I’m learning about something tasty!).