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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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
passion, Dr. Ballenger has two other pieces of advice: Commitment and writing
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
By Kali S. McCrackin Photo courtesy of Nicole Ballenger