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Oh! The Places We Go

It's easy to think that Ag Sciences graduates walk out of the college with degrees in hand and dive right into the worlds of equine or dairy science, animal husbandry, and agribusiness, or land roles with the government in agricultural regulation, but you might be surprised at the other kinds of careers in which some graduates find themselves.

There are NASA scientists out there, for example, wedding florists, even an expert animal impersonator (who happens to be pretty famous in the social media realm). Here are their stories.

From Farm to Firm

Jennifer Beidel ’03 Animal Science, ’06 J.D. LAW

Jennifer Beidel
Photo by Cardoni

Courtroom litigation wasn’t exactly in the grand plan for Jennifer Beidel. Her hope as a high schooler growing up on a farm in York County, Pa., was to be a large animal veterinarian. She was looking at her future as any 17-year-old vet-hopeful might be: “I was going to save animals,” she says. But as she got older, the reality of the work set in, and she realized it wasn’t going to be quite that glamorous. There would be upset clients, the dirt and grime of animal work that she knew well, and the fact that there would be animals she just couldn’t save.

When Beidel took an agricultural law course at Penn State, her mind shifted to the courtroom. “Sometimes in life, things happen for a reason,” she says. “It’s worked out, but I really didn’t plan it.”

After graduation, Beidel headed to Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law and then on to the law firm of Saul Ewing LLP in Philadelphia, where she’s a litigator specializing in—not surprisingly—ag law. The agricultural industry is facing more and more environmental and FDA regulation these days, and farmers and others within agribusiness are in need of lawyers, says Beidel, “who speaks their language” and knows how the industry works. She points to the recent case of a cattle broker facing criminal charges for theft and bad checks in a series of cattle deals. His original lawyer wasn’t well versed in the ag industry, so Beidel and her team stepped in to defend him. He was acquitted on all charges.

But Beidel, one of Pennsylvania’s “Lawyers on the Fast Track,” according to The Legal Intelligencer, isn’t only involved in agricultural law. She also specializes in healthcare, pharmaceutical, and financial services cases, as well as commercial litigation. Beidel’s highest-profile case was one brought against American Airlines by Cantor Fitzgerald in connection with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Cantor Fitzgerald sued the airline for negligence. Beidel and her team won a $135 million settlement for their client, which lost 658 employees in the attack on the World Trade Center.

Animal Talk

Melanie Torres ’12 Wildlife and Fisheries Science

Melanie Torres
Photo by Allan Ramsey

Melanie Torres is currently spending her days in the Colorado Rockies, hiking and searching for salamanders. It’s a pretty great life, she admits, but it’s also serious business. Torres, who is pursuing a master’s degree at Murray State University, is studying Chytrid fungus and its contribution to globally declining amphibian populations as a result of its hunger for keratin, found on the skin of frogs, toads, and salamanders. When the fungi gobble up the keratin, the loss negatively affects the health of amphibians’ skin, the organ on which they rely to breathe and absorb water and electrolytes.

It’s pretty important research, considering an amphibian’s role in its ecosystem. If a frog species decreases, for example, every critter along the food chain is affected—aquatic insect populations can increase, and snakes and herons could lose a reliable food source. “Everything in nature is connected, and the removal of one seemingly insignificant species from an environment,” she says, “can have lasting impacts beyond what we recognize at the time.”

Torres is drawn to the animal world—and in more ways than just her research. Turns out she has a not-so-hidden talent: the ability to re-create just about any animal sound out there with unbelievable accuracy. Nearly 4 million viewers have watched Torres’s YouTube video, “Mel’s Hidden Talent!!!” which shows the scientist mimicking the usual fare—dogs, cats, an American robin, a parrot—as well as more extravagant animals like the peacock, the kookaburra, and the elephant. (She even has two variations of goose.) Comments on YouTube range from “Not gonna lie . . . this is kinda a turn on” to “Totally creepy!”

The View from Over 2,000,000 Feet

Darrel Williams ’73 Forest Science (now Forest Ecosystem Management), ’74 M.S. Forest Resources

Darrel Williams
Photo by Cardoni

Darrel Williams can only liken the build and launch of a satellite to the pregnancy and birth of a child. Take all that agony and anticipation and worry about the health of a new baby and drag it out for five, six, or seven years, he says. “Then it all comes down to a "controlled" explosion and the knowledge that you could lose that thing before it ever gets into orbit.” Williams, who spent most of his career as a project scientist with NASA’s Landsat program, was directly involved in three of seven satellite builds and launches, and has never lost one.

Williams had always liked looking down at the Earth from above. His father owned a plane and would take the young boy into the air regularly. When the Vietnam draft went into effect, Williams figured he would head to the United States Air Force if his number came up. It didn’t, so he headed to college instead. It was at Penn State that he took on a master’s research project in the School of Forestry, funded by NASA, in which he looked to the skies to document gypsy moth deforestation on Mount Nittany and throughout the Northeast using photographic mapping and whatever satellite imagery was available—six images that covered the entire state.

That experience gave him a good “in” when NASA came calling after Williams had secured his M.S. degree in forest science from Penn State. They were looking for Earth scientists capable of interpreting satellite data for the Landsat program, the first Earth-observing satellite. They also wanted to bring scientists together with diverse backgrounds to investigate ways to improve the imagery and represent the needs of the communities—at that time, largely researchers and universities—that the images would be serving.

It wasn’t long before Landsat became a major buzzword in the 1970s and ’80s, says Williams, and several high-profile folks came to NASA to see what all the hype was about. Elizabeth Taylor, Hugh Downs, James Michener (who was then writing the novel Space), the president of Mexico, even Gerald Ford’s son, who was majoring in forestry at Utah State University.

But federal funding for the program waxed and waned over the years with presidential administrations (though the ’90s saw a boom when the first Bush administration saw how satellite imagery could improve military operations on the ground during Desert Storm), so Williams, and the other Landsat crew members from over the years, have begun to write a book about the program to try to piece together the program’s history and its main reason for being: largely quantitative remote sensing, or creating a record of data that shows the way the Earth’s landscape is changing over time due to human interaction and environmental stressors. (We should mention that the program also has offered us hours of mindless fun—you’re accessing Landsat technology when you log in to GoogleEarth and zoom in to see your house.)

Though there are many satellites up there these days, Landsat offers the “longest continuous global record of the Earth’s surface,” and Williams, who retired from NASA in 2010 and is now the chief scientist with Global Science & Technology, Inc., is proud to have been a part of that. He once told a reporter that, “Landsat was the granddaddy of them all when it comes to looking at Earth from space.”

A Growing Business

Mary Coombs ’06 Horticulture (now Horticulture option under the Plant Sciences Major)

Mary Coombs
Photo by Cardoni

On a farm in Elmer, N.J., sits a sweet little barn among 1,800 acres of potatoes, spinach, kale, and wheat. But the barn isn’t used for housing muddy farm equipment or work boots or animals. It’s the spot where brides come to imagine their dream weddings. A Garden Party, a floral shop that focuses on a couple’s big day, happens to be Mary Coombs’s dream, one she began crafting during her junior and senior years at Penn State, with Jeff Hyde in the Smeal College of Business as her mentor. Within three weeks of having her degree, A Garden Party, a joint venture between Coombs and her sister, was budding. That first year, the company created floral arrangements for seven weddings. The next year, it was 17. Then 25. And this past year, 140 brides have seen their floral dreams come true.

It all starts in that barn, A Garden Party’s design studio, where couples meet with Coombs and members of her staff—made up of six employees—to discuss their hopes for the Big Day. Romantic or formal? Casual or whimsical? They talk about color and season and species and what it might all look like in photos. “My gift,” says Coombs, “is to give people flowers, because they make people happy.”

And it never hurt to house the business on a farm in what Coombs calls “the middle of nowhere.” It’s actually been a blessing, says the floral designer who has worked on weddings in Philadelphia, Cape May, and Ocean City—all an hour from her studio. Even though her business is located in a renovated barn from the 1920s, technology gets her name out there. “If they can find you on the Internet,” she says, “they can find you in the middle of a field.” And it seems they have.

The Preacher's Son

Javier Moreno ’07 Agricultural and Extension Education

Javier Moreno
Photo by Brian Coats

As the son of a minister growing up in Puerto Rico, Javier Moreno moved around a lot as a kid. When he was in sixth grade, the family was assigned to a church in Jayuya, an agricultural community in the mountains. When members of the church weren’t able to contribute money as an offering, they would contribute their time, working on the church’s property—a coffee plantation—to harvest coffee beans and sell them. Javier was right there all along. He loved working with the earth and the animals, and every night before he fell asleep he would pray that one day he might become national president of the Future Farmers of America (FFA).

By his sophomore year at Penn State, Moreno had managed to fulfill that dream, and his responsibilities included visits to FFA’s corporate sponsors to thank them for their support. On one visit with Toyota, he impressed the executive team so much that he landed an internship with the company before leaving the office. After two internships and graduation, they offered him a job in research. It wasn’t his first choice, but it was a start, and he took it.

But it wasn’t long before the car company began to face some serious public relations crises. When the recession of 2008 hit, Toyota dipped into the red for the first time in the company’s history. Within a year, it faced a recall crisis after several deadly car accidents were caused by unintended acceleration (later determined to be the result of an electrical problem). It was then, in the midst of that turmoil, that a PR position opened, and Moreno —who always loved public speaking—raised his hand for the job. “I wanted to be part of the solution,” he says, and he soon became the youngest communications manager at the company, overseeing media and investor relations and marketing and internal communications, as well as social media for the auto giant’s North American division. But he had a lot of hard work ahead of him. Two years into the job, just as the recall crisis was quieting, a tsunami and earthquake rocked Japan and eventually shut down the company’s North American operations until Japan could recover. At one point on the morning that the news broke, Moreno was being called to the COO’s office for an emergency meeting while he was on the phone with CNN and working to answer an email from the New York Times.

These days, Moreno, who was named a 2013 PR Person to Watch by PR News, still moves around a lot—way more, in fact, than he did as a minister’s son. Though he’s headquartered in Dallas, Texas, he’s got team members in Los Angeles and New York, and bounces around all over the country for events and to speak with shareholders or industry analysts.

And that world is far from the coffee fields in Puerto Rico. “I miss being on the farm, being directly involved with agriculture,” says Moreno. But he hasn’t left it behind completely. He is still involved with the FFA, the organization that offered him his first dream job.

— Maureen Harmon