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The Power of Being Casual

Posted by Abby Beissinger | December 10, 2015

This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend Tilth Producers of WA annual conference.  We will be posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.

Abby Beissinger, student guest-blogger.
Abby Beissinger, student guest-blogger.

The day before the Tilth Producers of Washington Conference, I sat staring at my dresser unsure of what clothes to pack. You might be thinking, “Wow Abby, that’s awfully vain of you.” I’d probably think the same if I came across that sentence myself—but let me explain. As a student beginning my second year in pursuit of a MS degree in Plant Pathology, Tilth was my first conference as an academic. I wanted to network, communicate my new research, and just generally be taken seriously. I had no idea what to expect at Tilth, and figured the best way to achieve all these goals was to dress the part—I decided to bring dress pants, sensible heels, and a blazer.

When I arrived at Tilth, however, I looked out at the sea of flannel and Carhartt, and realized that I may have (read: quite certainly) overdressed for the weekend. I understood quickly that this would be a very different type of conference.

I attended farm tours, played with goats and fed them animal crackers, learned about integrating medicinal herbs into crop rotations, farm-to-school food policy, irrigation water issues—and those were just the workshops that I went to. Beyond the scheduled sessions and events, I found that the real meat of the conference was with the casual conversations I had with the other attendees.

The participants at Tilth were an evenly spread mix of growers, researchers, students, and ag industry professionals. This unique presence allowed for tons of quirky stories and information to flow between all groups.

In my normal daily life, when I tell people that I research a potato virus, I often get blank, glassy-eyed stares in return. But at Tilth, people were eager to learn more about how the virus could affect them. I talked openly and informally about what factors can lead to plant disease problems on farms and what to look out for. I was asked lots of hard questions that made me think on the spot, challenged me, and helped me understand how to convey science and research findings in a completely different context.  I also asked questions in return about the feasibility of disease management strategies, and what kinds of things influence grower decisions on the farm.

I learned so much by just talking with growers—something that could not be replicated in a class or a lab.

Photo: wormwould via CC Flickr.
Photo: wormwould via CC Flickr.

And so, from all of this, I realized that my wardrobe miscalculation may have spoken more to a tendency for researchers (myself now included) to regard our work as formal and academic, rather than interactive and responsive. I learned that my role is equal parts researcher and communicator, and often communication happens best in informal situations.

I would encourage any researcher—students, faculty, or industry professionals alike—to take some time to think about how the projects that we work on affect the people around us, and to seek out opportunities to meet with the real people that will actually be changed (both good and bad) by research results. This can be achieved not only by attending conferences like Tilth, but also by doing something as simple as casually chatting with growers. By doing this, you’ll likely have a better understanding of your own work, and find an even better answer to that age old question of research: “So what?”

3 thoughts on "The Power of Being Casual"

  1. Rachel Wieme says:

    Very well said Abby! I completely agree; I too have discovered that often times the best (most informative, impactful, or inspirational) happenings at events like these are the informal conversations between the official proceedings. Thankful for events like the Tilth Conference!

  2. Gretchen Graber says:

    Yes, Thanks Abby, As a horticultural student and instructor
    I was once told by a well meaning co-wroker who works at a desk and never goes outside, ‘to dress the part’ as they motioned to their fancy suit. I was dressed to work in out of doors and the office.

  3. Nancy Simpson says:

    Great insights Abby, and welcome to the world of academics. Researchers and professors would be wise to heed your call . . . casual encounters and community involvement are what matter. -Aunt Fancy-

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