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  • Writer's pictureAna María Vázquez-Catoni

Meet Courtney Meeks, Plant Pathology Ph.D. Student

Driven and compassionate, Courtney is working towards her vision where plant pathology and the welfare of farmers go hand in hand.


Courtney Meeks is a graduate research assistant in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Her research focuses on cold climate wine grapes in Wisconsin and the broader Midwest region.

  • Wine production in this region is a young industry, there's a growing interest in hybrid grape varieties tailored to cold climates.

  • Courtney aims to support the sustainability and growth of this industry by investigating various aspects, including the efficient use of fungicides to minimize environmental impact and production costs.

  • Furthermore, her work delves into understanding the biology of common pathogens affecting wine grapes in Wisconsin and beyond, with the goal of providing growers with valuable insights for effective disease management.


In addition to research, she enjoys mentoring undergraduate students and being involved in leadership opportunities, such as her recent role as president of the Plant Sciences Graduate Student Council (PSGSC), a multidisciplinary plant science graduate student organization on campus.


 

A Clear Path to Plant Path


"My first solo Agriscience Fair at the Georgia FFA Convention." (2015)

Courtney grew up surrounded by vast fields of peanuts and cotton in Valdosta, a town in the southern part of Georgia. She was not involved in agriculture until she joined the National FFA organization (formerly known as the Future Farmers of America). This organization’s mission is to make a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth, and career success through agricultural education.


Courtney participated in events that exposed her to different fields in agriculture, such as the Agriscience Fair, and allowed her to participate in prepared public speaking competitions, where she really honed her public speaking skills. Through this exposure, Courtney discovered plant pathology, a scientific discipline that combined her curiosity for general biology and infectious diseases, fueled in part by her mother's nursing career. 


 

Triumph over failure

Along Courtney's journey, she encountered some hurdles. Starting  her undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia, she failed a class, and nearly lost her scholarships. Feeling ashamed, the weight of the experience was overbearing but it was an important lesson. 


“Although opening up about failures is becoming normalized, at that moment, I didn’t want to talk to other people about it. However, this moment made me understand that we are not perfect. Failure is normal and it doesn’t define me. What is more important is learning how to handle it.” 

This event prompted Courtney to reassess her academic path. She transitioned from her initial major in applied biotechnology to Agriscience and Environmental Systems, reflecting on her motivations and aspirations. Through this process, she discovered a new major that aligned better with her interests and goals. Despite this change, she maintained a diverse academic focus, including classes ranging from marketing to plant and animal sciences, all while continuing her research in plant pathology. What felt as a setback, became an instrumental realization in being in tune with your authenticity and goals. 


"Working in my first research lab!" (2017)

 

Lasting impact of a mentor's support

A mentor that has played a pivotal role in Courtney’s academic journey has been Dr. Phil Brannen. Dr. Brannen connected Courtney to an opportunity to conduct research in Dr. Marin Brewer’s lab where she acquired molecular skills.

“Although I was in another lab, throughout those four years, he was still a mentor to me. I remember, whether it was having a struggle with my research or a class, and even finalizing my decision to pursue graduate school, his door was always open.” 

Dr. Brannen’s unwavered support and guidance shaped Courtney’s academic and personal growth.


 

Finding joy, gratification and strength, in and beyond research

This journey led her to UW Madison, driven by her determination to pursue graduate school and fulfill her career aspirations in agricultural research. Courtney found plant pathology before entering college and since then, her passion for the field has not changed! Since her freshman year, her biggest motivation is knowing that the research she conducts will benefit farmers at some capacity


“I feel like farmers are the most underappreciated. Farmer suicide rates across the United States is one of the highest across all occupations. That puts my work into perspective. Whether it's addressing pest infestations or reducing the financial strain of purchasing fungicides, building relationships with farmers and helping to alleviate their burdens through research is something that I enjoy.”

Courtney values the opportunity to listen to farmers' concerns firsthand and integrate their feedback into her research endeavors. While her undergraduate projects were more limited in scope, Courtney's graduate studies have provided her with greater autonomy to shape her research based on growers' insights. She also enjoys being able to conduct applied research and having tangible outcomes of her work. 


Beyond her academic pursuits, Courtney draws strength from her faith. As a Christian, she finds support in knowing that her joy is not based on her circumstances and this empowers her to uplift others. 


“I try to keep my cup as full as possible. That way I can pour out to others.”


Since her undergraduate studies and into graduate school, Courtney has been involved in leadership positions such as President of the sorority Sigma Alpha and recently, President of PSGSC.


Despite the challenges that come with leadership, Courtney found fulfillment and valuable insights in these roles. She finds excitement in seeing a team learn, grow and flourish together, and their ties evolve to form strong connections. Additionally, the highlight of her excitement is seeing the team’s ideas come to life and provide events where graduate students can have the opportunity to unwind and connect with others. 


 

When asking Courtney what she would have pursued if it wasn’t plant pathology, she was ready with an answer!


Courtney's undergraduate degree allowed her to have a variety of classes and the one that caught most of her curiosity was soil science!


“I always loved how you know you can look at a map of the United States and it looks like a watercolor painting! At first hand, it looks simple but it is underappreciated. We walk on it every day, but we don't think about it.”

Courtney also considered an alternative option, as an event planner. As a graduate student, she values the skills of planning and organization that she has honed, from her research, to a whole Plant Sciences Symposium, to her own wedding! 


 

What is the importance of agriculture? 

When Courtney reflects on the importance of agriculture, she urges a broader appreciation for the unseen efforts of farmers and the profound impact of agriculture on society.


“You depend on a farmer more than three times a day. Not just for three meals, but for the clothes you wear, the wood in your house, the gas in your car. Agriculture is woven into every aspect of your life in a very indirect way, but people just don't take a moment to think about it. Taking a step back makes you appreciative of it. Someone grew it and you will never know that person.”

 

The importance of making informed decisions!


Courtney emphasizes the importance of exploration and exposure to various opportunities, such as internships and shadowing as a means to gain practical experience and insights into different career paths as well as a practice to hone soft skills. Additionally, she encourages to seek as many resources to expand your knowledge and perspective of a given field, whether it is through networking, mentorship, career fairs or podcasts!


 

Outside of the lab

Courtney enjoys cooking new recipes, working on crocheting projects and reading multiple books at a time as both an escape and a means of self-education. She emphasizes maintaining a work life balance to avoid burnout.


“Humans are multifaceted individuals and they're made and designed to be so. Just make sure you find that balance in everything you do.”

 

If you want to contact Courtney, you can email her at cjcameron3@wisc.edu and follow her on LinkedIn!

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