Thursday, October 11, 2012

Faces of Science: Agricultural economics and the administrative side of science

This is the third of a series of blogs about women in science at the University of Wyoming, as we initiate our new NSF-funded program.Throughout the year we will be blogging about women in engineering, earth sciences, biological sciences and beyond.

Dr. Nicole Ballenger enjoys spending time with her horses in her free time
Scientific work takes a variety of forms, from biology to physics to agriculture. The diversity of fields offers a plethora of choices, especially for students looking to better the world. Dr. Nicole Ballenger was one such student during the global food crisis of the 1970s. As an economics major, she wasn’t sure how she could help amend the problems the world was facing, but when she combined economics and agriculture for her Ph.D., she found a way.
“Agricultural economics is the science of economics applied to agriculture,” Dr. Ballenger explains. “Agricultural economics requires knowing something about the science of agriculture and working with people who are agricultural scientists.”
Dr. Ballenger wrote her Ph.D. dissertation about how policies affected food self-sufficiency in Mexico, which led her to a career focused on trade relations, agricultural policy, and eventually administration of agricultural economics research. Using her understanding of economics, Dr. Ballenger informed agricultural policy.. Her interest in world hunger and other food problems became her passion, and that passion has driven her career.
“I think it’s good to pursue an area of science that’s related to something you really care about because that’s the way that you stay connected and that you continue to feel passionate about what you do,” Dr. Ballenger says.
Dr. Ballenger has worked for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA_, the Council of Economic Advisers in the White House, the National Research Council and UW’s Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. Today, she is an associate provost at the University of Wyoming.
“It is tremendously interesting and fun to see how a university is run,” Dr. Ballenger says. “And being at this level of administration allows you to have some connection to every part of the academic mission of the university. In the previous jobs that I had, I didn’t get to work with students, and working with them is a great joy, especially when you hear from them a couple years after your class.”
For a significant part of her career, Dr. Ballenger worked in the government. Her path as a scientist is different from many, because she picked a path that led her to the administrative aspects of science rather than the bench side.
“I was having trouble imagining trying to raise a child and get tenure at the same time,” Dr. Ballenger says of her decision. “I think it was a time when academia was much less family friendly and I was in a profession that had very few women. Today, things are changing, and changing for the better.”
The administrative side of science is one that most people tend to forget about or overlook, but it is incredibly important for science and society. Scientists, especially women scientists, were instrumental in creating food safety regulations and diet and health recommendations, which we tend to take for granted today.
It’s because of contributions to society like these that Dr. Ballenger says, “Hopefully people who are on the bench side of things consider going into administration at some point in their careers because we need scientists in leadership jobs in academia, government agencies and the private sector.”
Dr. Ballenger’s career has been challenging, like all science careers are, but she found that the barriers many women face in scientific fields were not as big of an obstacle for her.
“I’ve been very lucky to have had a very successful career and in many ways I have found that being a woman is an advantage and it is an opportunity to stand out,” Dr. Ballenger says. “I was also fortunate to have a very supportive husband. He stayed home with our son and was the primary caregiver in those early years, which helped a tremendous amount.”
Dr. Ballenger’s career has been full of challenges, variety and diversity. Her opportunities and support structures were instrumental, but more importantly were her choices. Choices are the key to a happy, successful career, especially for students just starting university with their whole lives ahead of them.
“I would always encourage young people to explore and not close off their options,” Dr. Ballenger says. “Let your heart felt interests drive what you then decide to focus on. Don’t pick something just because you think it is lucrative, because at some point you will probably wish that you had picked something else.”
Along with passion, Dr. Ballenger has two other pieces of advice: Commitment and writing skills.
“You’ve got to work hard and you have to demonstrate your commitment and motivation,” she says. “You’ve also got to develop your writing skills. Those are going to help you no matter what you do. When you write well, it is a reflection of how your thought process is working. It mirrors the logic of your thinking and logic is essential in science.”
For girls in particular, Dr. Ballenger says, “Don’t get discouraged if your find things like math or analytical things challenging. You can do them, there is absolutely no reason that you can’t and gaining those skills will pay off for you. They will open doors.”

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photo courtesy of Nicole Ballenger

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