Meet Dr. Rachel Seman-Varner, Natural Resource Scientist in the Public Service
Dr. Rachel Seman-Varner is an agroecologist with a focus on nutrient management and soil health in sustainable and organic production systems. She works as Natural Resource Scientist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, USA. She's specifically part of an environmental research group where part of their responsibilities are to collect and analyze data related to agriculture and natural resources, and provide scientific evidence to support policy decisions in the state.
Undergraduate experience can help define our path
Dr. Seman-Varner developed interest in nature, especially plants and soils, as a child. She mentioned how she enjoyed making mud pies garnished with flowers, laying in tall grasses for hours, and building forts in the woods as a kid. Later on in college, she decided to major in Botany with a minor in chemistry as an undergraduate student at the University of Florida. How cool is that! During her undergrad program, she gained experience as a research assistant working on eco-physiology projects which consisted in studying invasive species, environmental predicting functions and range.
After her bachelor’s program graduation, she volunteered with the Peace Corps on agriculture-related projects to obtain direct experience in a local diversified vegetable farm. Later on, this volunteer experience turned into a full-time internship.
“The farmer/owner was very inspiring because she ran a successful CSA (community supported-agriculture model), conducted on-farm research, and worked with various national agricultural groups. After a year on the farm, I decided to pursue a graduate degree in agroecology instead of serving in the Peace Corps.”
Dr. Seman-Varner then did her master’s program focusing on the effects of solarization, an alternative method to methyl bromide treatment, on soil nutrients and organisms at the University of Florida. During this program she worked with a diverse group of professors, for instance, Entomology and Nematology, to apply on agroecology and agriculture sustainable practices. Upon completion of her master’s program, she worked as an educator at Humboldt State University in the field of environmental and soil sciences. It was after this job that she decided to go back to school for a PhD at
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
“My dissertation focused on ecosystem services and nitrogen management in strip-tilled corn system incorporating cover crops and poultry litter. I graduated in 2016 and designed my diverse education and experience to encompass all aspects of the agroecosystem; plants, insects, soil organisms, soils, and nutrients. I apply a holistic systems approach to my work and still play in the dirt.”
Currently, Dr. Seman-Varner leads the soil health and pesticide use programs at the
Natural Resources Assessment Section of the Washington State Department of Agriculture. Here, she has the responsibility to develop research proposals, collect and analyze data, summarize and present results to stakeholders, and provide scientific support on emerging agricultural issues. She collaborates with a team of scientists within the agency and from universities, conservation districts and other state and local groups.
Why work in a government agricultural agency?
“I choose to work with the state department of agriculture because of my interest in science-based decision making and public policy. My current position incorporates all elements and has a direct impact on how decisions are made at the state level.”
Dr. Seman-Varner described how she actually accepted a different position with the agency before having defended her PhD’s dissertation. After she graduated from her PhD, she was promoted to her current position as a scientist.
Changes can be challenging, but we can thrive
Rachel described how shifting from teaching in academia to informing policy and communicating with the public was a learning experience with many challenges since the academia and the government are very different.
“It has been challenging in terms of my feelings of being a “successful” PhD working outside of academia. I did not follow a traditional academic path – I moved during my program, transferring my degree progress, continued collaborations with my original research, and was not interested in a temporary post-doc after graduation. In this way, I’ve had to make some difficult choices about opportunities and career advancement while balancing my personal and familial responsibilities.”
The impact that good female mentors have on female students is powerful
Dr. Seman-Varner mentioned some of her best experiences in her journey have been working closely with mentors. During her PhD program, she had the opportunity to work as a graduate assistant in a food-systems minor program where she was advised by Dr. Susan Clark. She described Dr. Clark as a very supportive and inspiring woman that helped her through difficult times and helped her to be better.
“She [Dr.Susan Clark] supported me through some difficult times, provided professional experiences and career opportunities beyond the typical, improved my work, advocated for me, and inspired me, by example, to live my personal and professional lives with consciousness, compassion, and integrity.”
Rachel also described how she was strongly and positively impacted by strong mentorship from her experience as a farm intern. Dr. Rose Koenig, the owner and manager of the farm she worked in, was fundamental in shaping Rachel’s interests.
“She inspired me to apply my research skills to agroecological systems, connect with community and NGOs working in sustainable agriculture and food systems, and broadened my career opportunities.
"My relationships with both these women were foundational and have an incredibly positive impact on my life.”
Why is it important to highlight women in the agricultural sciences?
“Seeing other women and building good mentoring relationships, will pave the way for more diversity and build supportive, inclusive networks.”
A message to all the young girls & students out there
Dr. Seman-Varner mention that it’s essential to have women and people with different backgrounds in agriculture in order to solve complex problems.
“There are challenges in any professional field of study, and there are amazing mentors to share experiences and help along the way. Inevitably you will have to make decisions that will impact your career and your life. Take the time to clarify what is really important and what you are passionate about.”
A piece of advice can go a long way
Dr. Seman-Varner advised to be careful in the process of selecting academic advisors and mentors since these people can either help or hinder your progress during and after your graduate program. She also mentioned that it is important to take some time to clarify what exactly you want from a career, what are the things that inspire you to do the work you do, what kind of lifestyle you want to live, and what are you willing to give up for that?
Hobbies are important and healthy!
Rachel enjoys being outdoors with her family, gardening, hiking, swimming, lying in the grass, and meditating. She also likes practicing martial arts.
We can all create an impact in the world
Dr. Seman-Varner’s goal is to continue investigating the impact of sustainable management practices on soil,environmental health and food production. She also aspires to effectively communicate knowledge and information with students, agencies, and the public. Most importantly, she hopes her career activities bring people (students, farmers, government agencies, and industry) together and build relationships to work toward more sustainable agricultural production now and in the future.
Improving the Agricultural Sector
Rachel believes diversity, early education, and building collaborations are key components to continue improving the agricultural sector. She also mentioned she believes the field of agricultural sciences is slowly becoming more diverse and that women are now taking leadership roles at agencies and academia more than before, which is important for building an inclusive workplace.
“It will be important moving forward to recruit more diverse students and professionals. I think inspiring students starts early on with school gardens, community food system work, and strong STEM education. I also think improving the sector means building collaborations across various sectors of agricultural production; working more directly with farmers of large and small operations, government agencies, and academic researchers.”
Rachel Seman-Varner can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), and LinkedIn.
Thanks, Dr. Seman-Varner, for sharing your story with us!!
-The WAGS Team
This article was edited by Noelymar Gonzalez-Maldonado, WAGS co-founder.