What's Your Sustainability Story?

From an early age, Laura Christianson was interested in science and math. She also knew that she wanted to help people, which grew into a passion for the environment. Now, Christianson is a Research Assistant Professor of Water Quality at the University of Illinois, with undergraduate degrees in Biosystems and Ag Engineering, a masters in Ag Engineering, and PhD in Ag Engineering and Sustainable Ag. 

Christianson's thirst to better understand, improve, and educate people on water quality began on a family vacation to the Rockies when she was young, which sparked her interest in natural resources. Her father had come from a long generation of family farmers, and has extended family farms in north central Kansas. Her grandmother, a "Strong woman in ag," she recounts, still owns around 1,000 acres, so she has seen firsthand the role of women on the farm. 

With a background in ag and a passion for natural resources and the environment, Christianson set off to begin her sustainability story. 

"I knew I wanted to do water quality. It is very applied and technical, and so Ag Engineering was the best fit," she said. Christianson says that as a woman in Ag Engineering, she has seen a lot of growth as far as gender diversity, with about 25-30% of students in these departments being female, and as high as 50% in soil and water fields. 

One of Christianson's primary responsibilities as a Research Assistant Professor of Water Quality is acquiring better information regarding sustainable ag practices in order to educate people, and find ways to get those practices implemented. Her goal, she said, is to provide education on sustainable ag practices to help keep nutrients in the soil, which include cover crops, wetlands, and tillage reduction. 

"The scale of our goals is not small," she explained. "Some growers are at the leading edge, and some are interested in bioreactors and cover crops, and some have a wait-and-see approach. But it's hard to ask farmers to introduce a new way of doing business." 

On water quality, Christianson says she has seen an increased emphasis on water quality in the Mississippi water basin, and the Lake Eerie toxic algae bloom issue, as well as the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit have raised the concern around water quality in agriculture, and according to Christianson, "forces us to talk about water quality and become a part of the solution." 

Christianson had the opportunity to live in New Zealand during her PhD studies as a Fullbright Fellow, and worked on agricultural drainage where she says, "ingenuity and innovation are very prolific there because farmers are so captive on those two islands." 

She has also received several awards in her career, including being named the 2011 New Face of Engineering by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) as well as ASABE's national Stewart Engineering Humanities award in 2008.  

When Laura is not working for sustainability and the environment, she loves to spend time outside going for walks or runs, and playing the violin. She is also pregnant with her first child, due in December.