Alumni Spotlight on Dr. Becky Young

Switzerland | Courtesy of Dr. Young
Switzerland | Courtesy of Dr. Young

"Extroverted, soil nerd."

That's how Elyse Watson, SNR's recruiter and alumni coordinator, describes Dr. Becky Young when she talks with students preparing to take Soil Resources, which is taught by the now assistant professor of practice in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture.

Before heading over to Agronomy, though, Young earned both her masters and doctorate degrees in natural resources from the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Since she stepped foot on campus in 2009, she's been making a positive impact on students, staff, and faculty, and for the past three years has helped lead the UNL Soil Judging team to national competition as one of the co-coaches. (Find that story also this edition of the SNR Alumni Alert.)

Just off another regional competition sweep, Young took time to answer our SNR Alumni Survey.

Q. What degree(s) did you earn from UNL and in what year(s)?

2011 - Masters in Natural Resource Sciences
2015 - Doctorate in Natural Resource Science with a specialization in Soil Science

Q. How do you feel your SNR education prepared you for your career?

All of my courses used real-world, applicable examples and scenarios for projects, labs, etc., which made the content and relationships really "stick." I still draw on some of these in my courses today. For many of these projects, we were often allowed to modify or curate the project around our main research focus, which helped improve my ability to evaluate and solve various problems that were more applicable to my area of expertise. The communication seminars for grad students also helped improve my writing and presenting skills early in my graduate career, enabling me to focus on and improve other aspects of my projects and skills.

Q. Who were some of your favorite (or most memorable) professors and classes?

I've always loved field trips and field courses &mdash I'm an experiential learner &mdash so my favorite classes were:

  • Great Plains Field Pedology, with Mark Kuzila, where we spent a month developing a soil map for a landowner in SE Lincoln;
  • Seminar in Sedimentology, with Dave Loop, where we explored the geology of the Canyonlands National Park area

I was also very fond of Soil Microbiology with Rhae Drijber, as it was outside of my soil science wheel-house at the time. Rhae was a fantastic instructor and I usually left class with that excited feeling you get when you've learned something new and are thinking of all the examples or scenarios you've already come across.

Q. Describe your non-academic activities during your time at the university. For example, were you involved in any SNR-related student groups? Did you study abroad?

During my master's program, I was involved in the SNR GSA and served as fundraising chair for the 2010-2011 academic year. During my PhD program, I started volunteering at the University of Nebraska State Museum, engaging visitors in the Discovery Center, attending outreach events like NRD-LPS Nature Nights, NE SciFest and the Earth Wellness Festival, and generating soil-based learning activities and events for the museum. The volunteer program eventually led me to become a Museum Educator there after graduation. I also assisted with the UNL Soil Judging Team in 2014 and 2015 with my PhD and MS advisors.

Q. Describe your post-SNR career path. Did you attend graduate school (when/where)? If so, what did you study and how did you determine your research interests?

After earning my PhD in December of 2015, I started teaching courses as a lecturer at UNL in the Spring 2016 semester. I continued to teach in a lecturer role at UNL until July 2018, teaching Elements of Physical Geography, Soil Evaluation, Great Plains Field Pedology, and co-led the Geography Field Tour Course with Dr. Becky Buller. I've also worked as an adjunct instructor at Doane in 2016 and 2017, teaching Environmental Geology and Soil Systems and Sustainability. I worked for the University of Nebraska State Museum as a Museum Educator in Spring 2016 and September 2017 through July 2018.

With each semester, I took on more and more courses or positions to try to broaden my experience to become a better educator.

Q. When did your professional career begin to take shape?

Partway into my PhD program, which was research-focused, I realized I wanted a career teaching soils and/or science. I sought out opportunities like the volunteer program at the State Museum and badgered my advisor, Mark Kuzila, into letting me serve as an assistant coach for the Soil Judging Team to gain experience in science education and communication in a variety of settings. I continued working in these areas, taking on bigger roles and projects to build up my skill-set for teaching courses later on, and it paid off.

Q. What position do you currently hold? What do you most enjoy about it and what do you find most challenging?

Currently I am an Assistant Professor of Practice in Soils in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at UNL. With a 100% teaching appointment, I teach and manage the AGRO/HORT/SOIL 153 - Soil Resources course - resident and online sections - and co-coach the UNL Soil Judging Team. For most of my students, this is their first (and maybe only) soils course. So, what I enjoy most about this position is when they start to get excited about the things they're learning in class or mention how they look at landscapes in a new way, or when I overhear them talking about soil with their friends and classmates in the hallways.

I tend to be a natural procrastinator, so it can be challenging at times to create and finalize activities or course materials weeks in advance. Thankfully, during my PhD program I taught myself to set deadlines and due dates for myself to help keep me on track and focused.

Q. Would you change anything about or take anything back from your time at SNR?

If I could change anything it would be during my master's program. I would push my past self to reach out more to the great faculty and researchers to learn more about other programs, assist with field research, etc., rather than learn about it later on and regret not taking advantage of those opportunities.

I also would have taken some education courses or attended more of the educational workshops and events at professional meetings - tons of helpful resources and ideas floating around there.

Q. What advice would you give to current SNR students who aren’t sure or don’t feel confident about their postgraduate future?

Reach out and talk to the faculty and staff in the department - they're experts in their fields and can help point you to great resources or networks of professionals who can help you learn about all of the options out there. If you find yourself considering a different postgraduate career near the end of your time in SNR, embrace it and see if it's a better fit for you. Don't give up if your ideal position or career doesn't come along at first. If you keep taking advantage of opportunities that help improve your skill-set, you'll be more than ready and more confident when that perfect position does come along - or, you'll make your own.