Meet Melinda Knuth, Horticulture Ph.D. Candidate
A flower-loving scientist, determined to change the industry, one sign at a time
Melinda Knuth is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at Texas A&M University. She works in the Human Behavior Lab with Dr. Charlie Hall, and Dr. Marco Palma conducting eye-tracking research, a technique used to understand how consumers react to different marketing strategies. One of her research aims is to comprehend how signage and display influence consumers in the garden and retail centers, specifically for drought-tolerant plants. She belongs to an underrepresented field, marketing economics in the horticultural industry. She knows the dos and don’ts of signage. If you want to sell a plant, she’s the one to call!
Multidisciplinary at its finest
"There aren’t many agricultural marketers that are specialized in a field. Since horticulture is a big field, that’s why we exist. We provide a different perspective." Melinda advocates for horticulturists to engage in the marketing and economics arena because they provide input from the producer’s standpoint and then help translate it to the consumer.
"We as scientists, we spend most of our life in the lab or at our desk, but we really should be thinking about what’s the bigger picture here."
Standing in the bridge of two professions horticulture and marketing economics is a challenge. People in horticulture have said to her that she doesn’t belong there because she’s not into genetics, plant breeding, or post-harvest science. On the other side, she’s seen as “just a horticulturist”, a hillbilly. She’s a hybrid, and for some reason, that’s seen as unacceptable for some in academia. This experience has led Melinda to rethink criticism, to analyze it, regardless of who says it.
"Some people do give criticism to make you better. Not all criticism is negative, even if it’s delivered negatively."
A germinating passion
It’s no surprise that Melinda chose an interdisciplinary approach for her graduate research. Her academic background at the University of Nebraska involved various disciplines: communications, horticulture, greenhouse management, hydroponics, and entrepreneurship.
"I love horticulture, I love growing plants. This industry is very fun, it’s very diverse both in crops you can grow and people you can work with."
However, even though she knew from an early age that plants were her passion, Melinda didn’t walk a straight path in her career choice. "There’s been a lot of crossroads", she said. She initially wanted to become an architect or a veterinarian, but after job-shadowing, she realized it wasn’t her thing. Influenced by her mother’s gardening and her family’s agricultural background, she joined FFA in high school. Here, she became interested in floral design. She participated in the Floriculture Career Development Event where she always achieved the top ten positions."That made me think if I’m good at this, maybe I can do this as a career".
Opportunities to grow and blossom
She decided to pursue a horticultural degree and to aspire to open a floral shop. Soon into her career, she realized that the number of floral shops was on the decline and decided as a 21-year-old person opening a shop wasn’t a risk she wanted to take. Instead of feeling discouraged, she found another path, greenhouse management and production. This led her to a 6-month internship at Walt Disney World.
Afterward, she returned to Nebraska to finish her degree, and once that happened, she decided to return to Walt Disney World for a second internship in edible landscaping. She worked with a 5-star restaurant in The Golden Oak Resort at Orlando. They had a landscape where the plants were both edible and functionally aesthetic. Her job was to bring the landscape to life. Customers would admire its beauty, notice kale, and demand it for their salad!
Then, she decided to look for jobs in Nebraska but encountered trouble finding one that would pay a living salary for a person with a bachelor's degree. Aspiring for a better quality of life, she decided to go back to school, to earn her MBA, but she got rejected.
Thankfully, she was properly advised to contact Dr. Charlie Hall at Texas A&M University. Because of their similar interests, he offered her a deal she couldn’t resist.
"I’m zero or a hundred, so I said, I’m going to do this. I ended up pursuing a straight through Ph.D. in Horticulture at Texas A&M. If, after finishing my degree, I can choose not to go into academia if I wish, I do have a background where I can start my own business. Graduate school has been a good choice for me."
In terms of her research funding, she shared that some entities within the industry traditionally wouldn’t provide for them, because they aren’t doing bench science. Yet, marketers and economists are still needed. In her lab, they target SCRI (Specialty Crop Research Initiative) funds from NIFA, USDA. For every grant that SCRI grant given, there must be a marketer and an economist onboard. This is where she comes in. Finding funds for social sciences within agriculture is a challenge, but that doesn’t stop her. On the contrary, it’s a challenge she has willingly accepted.
"At the end of the day, even though the breeders, geneticists, and post-harvest physiology researchers are striving to make a better product, what is the point in making it if you don’t know it’s going to be accepted in the market or if the consumer even wants it? We are in the age of the consumer, and the consumer drives the market."
Persistence and positivity above all
Because horticulture is a male-dominated field, women in the industry are often undervalued. For this reason, Melinda has experienced microaggressions, which are defined as, ‘the subtle and everyday verbal, behavioral, and environmental expressions of oppression based on the intersection of one’s race and gender’ (Lewis et al., 2013). It has happened at conferences, where she’s been told she’s just a pretty thing.
"People need to support each other on a basic human level. This Women in Ag Sciences initiative is more than just for women, it’s for men to respect women and that we’re in science. We’re here, not to steal their jobs, but to stand beside them and be treated like them, not be treated like just a pretty thing. I’m not just a pretty thing."
Melinda worries about the other people that are struggling in their job search with a bachelor’s degree, just as she did. She says it can be hard to find employment with a competitive income in the industry. This is something that they’re trying to change.
"If you’re going to provide a smaller income, then provide better benefits or vice versa. We’re losing a lot of people, both men and women because people don’t see the value of the position if it has a low salary."
Despite this, positive experiences and mentors have encouraged her to keep pushing forward. One of her major role models is her dad.
"He’s always been my cheerleader. Even if he doesn’t understand the point of doing this, he’s always been there; he and my mom have always been a huge positive in my life."
Her current advisor, Dr. Charlie Hall, is another one. He keeps her best interest in mind, not just career-wise, but also personally. Dr. Hall is also a fellow Christian, so they can connect on a spiritual level. Maintaining a work-life balance is hard, but his advice and moral support have always lifted her spirit.
As she said to us, "Work comes and goes, but at the end of the day, what’s important is my relationship with my friends, my parents, and with other people that I work with." Another role model for Melinda is Dr. Bridget Behe from Michigan State University. She was the first female faculty member in the horticulture department at Auburn University. She continues to provide support for Melinda and other young women in the industry.
Change is coming, slowly but surely
‘There are more female urban farmers, and that is the growing sector of our industry’, Melinda assures, ‘they are going to be the future.’ Therefore, Melinda advocates for women in horticulture, because they are the ones shifting paradigms, taking risks, and leading the industry towards inclusivity.
Assisting events has also boosted Melinda’s passion for horticulture. A few years ago, she was an American Hort Scholar coordinator and found herself in a room with people who shared her ideas, her way of thinking, and her love for plants. She’s convinced that this generation will improve the industry and transform it into a better place for everyone. Those types of events remind Melinda of the reason she started this journey.
"We want our industry to thrive and we want to cultivate it to be a better place. We want to get more young people, women, and people of color in our industry, thinking about what’s going to happen in the next 10-20 years."
More than a scientist
Besides academia, Melinda also dedicates time to her cats, crocheting, running, traveling, and beer. She’s part of the Girls Pint Out, a national organization with regional chapters where they visit breweries and taste the artisanal beer. One of her goals is to visit all 50 states. Up to the day, she’s at 45/50. She wants to visit Germany, where her family is originally from and part of it remains. Ultimately, Melinda aspires to have stability in her life. She’s come a long way and is finally ready to own a piece of property and to lay down some roots... maybe even start a large garden.
Lastly, Melinda advises the students that are starting their academic career to believe in themselves, to not let negativity prevent them from reaching their goals.
"You need to be your #1 cheerleader in your life, be confident in your abilities, and advocate for yourself. If you think you can do it, speak up. The only person who can decide what you want is yourself."
Melinda wishes to thank her research funding sources, American Floral Endowment, Wholesale Florist & Florist Supplier Association, CalFlowers, Society of American Florists, and many other prominent entities of the floral industry, USDA, her Disney family, and her mentors. Without them, she wouldn’t be where she is in academia.
You can find Melinda at LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mknuth/
Melinda, thank you for sharing your story with us!
This interview is written by WAGS team member Patricia M. Cordero-Irrizary.
Lewis, J.A., Mendenhall, R., Harwood, S.A. et al. Coping with Gendered Racial Microaggressions among Black Women College Students. J Afr Am St 17, 51–73 (2013).